Authority Magazine
Published in

Authority Magazine

Heroes of the COVID Crisis: How Dr Leo Nissola Stepped Up to Make A Difference During The Covid-19 Pandemic

As a survivor, love and hope are very important to me. I look up to everyday people who decide to take on big challenges and shape the world. Finding the courage to employ your passion in difficult times to spark joy and hope in others is vital. People who have inspired me recently to be hopeful for the future are Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya. They are leading the efforts to make ALS treatments more accessible to more people in their search for a cure. Dr. James Allison, a living legend who revolutionized cancer care with immunotherapy discoveries, is another personal hero. Finally, and most importantly, I must include President Biden for blocking federal funding for anti-gay conversion therapy experiments and massively increasing funds for cancer research to end this wretched disease.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Leo Nissola.

Dr. Leo Nissola is an award-winning immunologist and cancer researcher, frequently featured as a medical expert on the BBC, CBS, FOX, MSNBC, NBC, and other networks. Dr. Nissola built, evaluated, and designed data-driven COVID-19 epidemiological models, some of which were featured by the White House in Press Briefings, while conducting early phase drug discovery immunotherapy clinical trials. He is the best-selling author of “The Immunity Solution” by W.W.Norton, Countryman Press and has appeared over five hundred times on tv and streaming shows advocating for more inclusive public health policies.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I am incredibly proud of being a first-generation American immigrant. When I was born in Southern Brazil in 1982, the military dictator who had seized control of the country after the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état was still in charge. Because my family emigrated from Italy to Brazil after World War II, I have what I like to call “immigrant genes.”

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I listen to audiobooks on Audible and read a lot, so I have many favorites. The first book I fell in love with was The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, a story about a young shepherd who travels to the Egyptian pyramids in the hopes of discovering a treasure. It was a story that made me marvel at how the universe can work in harmony to fulfill your wishes when you really want them to. When I read Viktor Frankl’s book later in life, it fundamentally changed my perspective on life. I felt much less alone and much more hopeful after reading this book. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankel describes his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II, including how he overcame the horrors and atrocities he witnessed by choosing to identify a worthwhile goal to achieve, a purpose to live and something to feel positive about.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Dr. Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist once said, “It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself.” My interpretation of his quote is that I am what I choose to be, not what happened to me. As a doctor who has endured trauma and has worked with many cancer survivors, I am aware of the suffering that can result from having to face adversities. The quote reminds me that even after passing through fire, you can start over. If you learn to broaden your perspective during the process, coming out as a survivor can be empowering. Dr. Jung is one of the most renowned figures in medical history, and I feel honored and humbled to be listed alongside him on the W.W. Norton author list. I owe him a great deal of respect.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Today, I am the founder and CSO of FirstBio Research, a data-driven consulting firm specializing in providing scientific advice to leaders. We counsel public leaders, investors and founders in the life sciences, the drug discovery space, genomics, medical devices, and other health-related settings to ensure their strategies are grounded in science. We also advise leaders in public health to ensure their policies are ethical and protect disadvantaged communities. To address the unmet need for a science-based approach to decision-making, we started working on this project during the pandemic. We have all endured the pandemic long enough to recognize that false information was a threat in addition to the coronavirus. It is crucial for the health and well-being of our people in times like these that leaders as well as founders make decisions based on data rather than speculation. We make this possible by rigorously applying the scientific method, not chasing headlines.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

Heroes are people who show great courage. It takes courage to report to a thankless 9 to 5 job paying minimum wage in the middle of a pandemic. It takes a hero to provide patient care on the front lines while constantly risking your life and the lives of your loved ones. Heroes are those who stand up for others without thinking about how they will benefit personally. During my time providing patient care, I came across many heroes who valiantly overcame the risks and pains of difficult treatments. I encounter heroes every time I visit my local grocery store. It takes tremendous courage to stand up for facts rather than one’s own agenda in troubled times like the ones we currently live in. I made the decision to speak up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves from the beginning of the pandemic because I had learned that knowledge came with a lot of responsibility. Even though heroic efforts are not always successful, carrying the weight of knowing but doing nothing is not a pleasant experience.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

Altruistic

Too often those with good intentions are seen as weak, but in my opinion, nothing is more valuable than good intentions. Any project you want to start, whether it’s a clinical trial or a chocolate cake, must first be in alignment with your mission, vision, and values. A person who acts heroically is one who does so with the best intentions possible given the circumstances. A good heart is the most fundamental tool one can have.

Humble

As a man of science, I know for sure that no one holds all the answers all the time. Philosophers have argued about this concept for centuries, and it is still true. There are things I know for sure, but I also know the vast amount of knowledge I have not yet been exposed to. To do great work and leave a good mark in the sands of time, one must always look around and realize all that is still left to be discovered, explored, and witnessed. No one knows everything, and having that certainty is a sign of humility.

Selfless

Sacrifice doesn’t always have to mean facing immediate or serious danger. At many points over their career, every healthcare worker is faced with a choice to make a personal sacrifice. It could be as simple as missing a friend’s wedding because you are on call that weekend, or leaving a party due to an emergency. It has happened to me many times. I have missed birthdays, Christmases, funerals and, unfortunately, lost friends because I wasn’t present for them, due to my work commitments. Humans are social creatures and missing each other can be quite painful. Those small selfless acts are heroic to me.

Courageous

Although fighting beasts while scavenging for food is no longer necessary in modern society, I have personally witnessed the courage it takes to speak up in the midst of chaos. Without taking risks, not much can be achieved, and throughout my journey, I have developed the ability to do what is right even when it scares me. It’s a heroic act to stand up in front of a crowd and say your peace.

Self-Aware

Your DNA is unique if you are not an identical twin. This means that no one else in the world has the same DNA sequence as you. Because your DNA is unique, your physical appearance, and personal traits are also unique. I read a lot of philosophy, and Nietzsche used to emphasize the importance of being yourself. I whole-heartedly agree with that. The flame of self-discovery burns beneath the skin we live in, but it allows us to get to the bottom of who we truly are. To understand the true force of our nature, we must allow ourselves to become ashes in order to undo the knots holding us back from our true potential. If you are not careful, people will tell you who you are, and if you aren’t sure about yourself, you might believe them. To pursue the process of becoming self-aware, one must untie the chains that block our perception. That’s where heroes find their power.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

Heroes are ordinary people who wake up one day and decide to solve a problem despite adversity. In my experience, there’s nothing more powerful than passion, so to me, that’s what drives people to do amazing things. Personal trauma can be a catalyst for doing groundbreaking work and chasing after the best version of yourself. History shows that hardships have helped people like Oprah, Viola Davis, and David Hogg wake up and fight even after enduring tremendous turmoil. Everyone has the potential to be the best version of themselves, and the very act of trying is heroic to me. There’s nothing more heroic than feeling hope when the world around us is being burned to the ground. Passion is what drives normal people to become their own personal heroes. The superman you are looking for lives inside you.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

I had an accident twenty years ago, and the doctors warned me that even if I lived, I might never be able to walk again. This close call with death gave me a newfound appreciation for life’s fragility and perspective. I got goosebumps the first time I read about a mysterious pneumonia-like syndrome in Wuhan in January 2020 and knew it was my call to action. As a result, I became involved with several nonprofit organizations and offered my assistance in order to evaluate the data, construct epidemiological models, and analyze global trends. I was unable to stand by and do nothing when the pandemic struck the US. I could see that people back home were afraid and that the leaders needed some assistance.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

As a survivor, love and hope are very important to me. I look up to everyday people who decide to take on big challenges and shape the world. Finding the courage to employ your passion in difficult times to spark joy and hope in others is vital. People who have inspired me recently to be hopeful for the future are Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya. They are leading the efforts to make ALS treatments more accessible to more people in their search for a cure. Dr. James Allison, a living legend who revolutionized cancer care with immunotherapy discoveries, is another personal hero. Finally, and most importantly, I must include President Biden for blocking federal funding for anti-gay conversion therapy experiments and massively increasing funds for cancer research to end this wretched disease.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

In the beginning of the pandemic there was a massive failure in the containment of the spread of the virus. It was clear to me that Trump was downplaying the impact of the coronavirus. I am not an elected official and have no political interests, but my scientific background and medical knowledge allowed me an opinion on the COVID response. I was legitimately afraid of what was going on around us and for our future as species. Today, I am confident in the COVID response and on the work being done to give people access to tests, PPE and treatments.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

Humans have overcome a lot to get to where we are today, emerging from a dune of dust to the splendor of the stars. In addition to the hundreds of millions of deaths from wars and disease, there have been numerous natural disasters since the emergence of humans, and yet we’ve survived it all. While thousands of years ago we only wanted to fight for food or land, today we actively discuss ways to be kind to one another. We don’t often take the 30-thousand-foot view and have perspective of how far we have come, but history shows that humanity gets better and that gives me hope.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

Educating people on the same safety measures and fundamentals for years on end can be exhausting, but public servants do it anyway because it is their calling. People who act on criticism and feedback rather than pushing back against it inspire me. Given the negativity we witness on social media every day, it is simple to avoid participating in public discourse. However, it is more difficult to fall asleep when you have the knowledge to solve a problem, but no one is taking any action. Denial is not a good state to be in, and over the past few years, we have witnessed a lot of it.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

COVID has taught me a great deal. One thing I learned is the weight of the responsibility of knowledge. I read books for pleasure but also to attain some form of enlightenment, so I try to stick to traditional non-fiction. During the lockdown I was able to re-read the classics, and ancient Greek literature helped me view how far we have come since the ancient times and how much we still have to accomplish to get to where we’d like to be. In life, nothing matters more than health and there’s no asset more precious than time. The pandemic allowed many of us to reassess how we spend our time and how we can achieve better health. Those are powerful experiences.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

The fundamental understanding that we are one species is something we have yet to accomplish, but I think this crisis pushed the dial towards that goal a bit further. I’d like us to think less of our individual gains and more in terms of which problems we can fix for the world today with the tools we have at hand.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t be afraid to try, to fail, and to chase your dreams. Don’t let others tell you who you are and know that heroes aren’t afraid to fight for what’s right. When in doubt, chose yourself, always.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Science shows that health is about balance, and I’d like more people to fully understand that concept. My new book, The Immunity Solution, was the #1 New Release in health, mind, and body on Amazon when it was released for pre-order, six months ahead of publication. I think people are ready and eager to lead healthier lives. As a first-generation immigrant researcher, I am very proud and couldn’t be more grateful for the trust and support I have received.

The immune system is critical to people like me who are gay, to those who take PreP, to those with an autoimmune condition, to people living with immune challenges, but also for everyone else who lives in a world where viruses are an everyday issue. There’s no eternity elixir in a book, but people might learn a thing or two about what it takes to being healthy and living longer. A healthier and happier world is all I could ask for.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Pete Buttigieg showed the world that when you stand up for what is right, you can get things done. As someone who endured a religious conversion therapy experiment, seeing a gay man taking on big challenges despite all the adversities is a big deal. He inspires me every day.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/doctorleo/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LeoNissolaMD

Book: https://www.amazon.com/Immunity-Solution-Living-Healthier-Longer/dp/1682687635/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store