Altoona grad on front lines of virus fight
Like lots of boys, Eliot Fagley had dreams of becoming a professional baseball player.
“I loved baseball. I played Little League, Teener league, and played in high school and at Juniata College and the Federation. I was all over the place: I started at shortstop, did a lot of pitching and played the outfield,” said Fagley, an anesthesiologist who leads the Critical Care Unit’s COVID-19 response at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle, Wash.
He had also thought about becoming a physicist.
“My AP physics teacher, Roger Menard, was a real inspiration. He was a fantastic teacher; he got me interested,” Fagley said. “I realized how difficult it would be to make money as a physicist.”
After graduating from Altoona Area High School in 1994, he enrolled at Juniata College and decided to go into pre-med. He almost switched his major to business.
“My dad (Richard) really wanted me to be sure that I wanted to be a physician. He had been in a skiing accident many years before and had befriended the orthopedic surgeons at University Orthopedics. He reached out to them — along with Dr. Greg Fulchiero Sr. — to allow me to tag along to observe some surgeries,” Fagley said.
After an inauspicious start — he passed out watching his first hand operation — Fagley “found the opportunity to help others, specifically in the operating room environment to be personally fulfilling and fascinating.”
He graduated from Juniata in 1998 with a double major in biology and philosophy.
He then attended Tulane Medical School in New Orleans, La.
“Going from Huntingdon to New Orleans was quite a culture shock,” Fagley said.
He decided to specialize in anesthesiology and received his doctorate in 2002.
“There is something special about what anesthesiologists do. It requires a certain set of skills that go under-appreciated. You need to be good with your hands, and there is a lot of physiology and pharmacology involved,” Fagley said. “It takes a special set of skills to do that.”
He started his residency at Tulane, and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, he was the senior anesthesiology resident on call. He helped evacuate patients and make sure everyone was safe. He would later receive the Health Professions Hero Award from Juniata College for those efforts.
“It starts with being in the right place at the right time and wanting to do the right thing,” Fagley said. “When New Orleans flooded, it was clear that we were going to need all hands on deck to get our patients, families and staff evacuated from Tulane Hospital, which was surrounded by several feet of water.”
He finished his residency at Washington University in St. Louis — where he got his first faculty job and met his future wife — Dr. Amy Lee, now chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“I met her in Operating Room 208 in the Barnes-Jewish Hospital at Washington University. We completed our fellowships together,” Fagley said. “I completed my residency and stayed on the faculty for three years prior to moving to Seattle in 2011. I started at the University of Washington in the cardiac thoracic ICU then went to Virginia Mason.”
Today, he leads the critical care unit’s COVID-19 response team at Virginia Mason.
Fagley said COVID-19 hit early in the Seattle area.
“One of the first cases in the country was close to Seattle. Feb. 29 is when we got our first patient. Our peak was in mid-May, then it tapered off. We had a secondary swell over summer,” Fagley said. “We put plans in place to recognize how we deliver care to keep COVID patients isolated and make sure we provided the safest care possible.”
Virginia Mason Chairman and CEO Gary Kaplan said Fagley is a wonderful clinician and highly respected member of the professional staff.
“He is a superb anesthesiologist and critical care physician. He has emerged as a very thoughtful and highly regarded leader at Virginia Mason. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he has led our clinical teams to take outstanding care of patients while sensitively leading multi-disciplinary teams in the ICU and beyond,” Kaplan said. “He is a very highly regarded physician and leader and has great emotional intelligence, sensitivity and caring.”
On Sept. 20, Fagley was asked by the Seattle Seahawks to lead one of the team’s most sacred traditions, the raising of the 12 Flag, effectively making him the only “12” in attendance.
He was selected to represent physicians, nurses, patient care techs, therapy experts and pharmacists, and their collaborative effort to lead critical care for COVID-19 patients.
Fagley, a longtime Seahawks fan, was thrilled.
“It was a fantastic honor. I was a Seahawks fan as a kid. Curt Warner was my favorite player. My first autograph was from Curt Warner. Chuck Knox, the coach, was a Juniata grad,” Fagley said. “It was more about having the opportunity to celebrate what the team has done.”
“Dr. Fagley and his team embody what it means to be a hero,” said Jeff Richards, Seahawks vice president of marketing & community engagement. “The 12 Flag is a symbol representing the community of 12s across our region and around the world. The raising of the 12 Flag is an incredibly special tradition that we reserve for people who have made a significant contribution in representing our Seahawks and Pacific Northwest community.”
Fagley said he has had several role models and mentors along the way — among them the late Dr. Greg Fulchiero Sr. and Deb Kirchhof-Glazier, who was his biology teacher and head of the health professions program at Juniata.
Dr. Fulchiero took me under his wing. He was kind and generous,” Fagley said.
Fagley also said that Kirchhof-Glazier “was instrumental in convincing me to stay on track.”
Kirchhof-Glazier remembers him well.
“He was a good-natured guy, a very caring person. He was a student athlete, he played baseball. We are known for our difficult curriculum and to do that as an athlete, you really have to manage your time,” Kirchhof-Glazier said. “He is just a real nice guy and I am really proud of him.”
Menard, his high school physics teacher, also remembers him. “He was always a very happy, upbeat person, but very committed to his studies and doing well in school. He was very disciplined and motivated in high school. He had the type of personality you could see would help him be successful,” Menard said.
Fagley and his good friend, Dr. Greg Fulchiero Jr., stay in touch and talk at least once a week.
Fulchiero is not surprised by his good friend’s success.
“He is a genius, but never believed it until he blossomed in Juniata College and got accepted to the renowned Tulane Medical School. Eliot is triple-boarded in anesthesiology, cardiothoracic anesthesia and critical care medicine. I don’t think anybody in the United States has ever done that before. He really broke new ground and brought his expertise out of the operating room to critically ill patients in the ICUs,” Fulchiero said. “If you ever get sick — and I mean really sick — I hope you’re lucky enough to have somebody like Eliot taking care of you on a ventilator because nobody else can deliver world-class care like Eliot.”
Fagley doesn’t get back to the area often — he calls Seattle his home — but remembers growing up in Altoona.
“It may have been small, but it was a town of opportunity. It was a safe place, a great launching point. I got a great education,” Fagley said. “Everyone knew everyone. It was a fantastic environment to grow up in.”
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 814-946-7467.
The Fagley file
Name: Dr. Eliot Fagley
Position: Anesthesiologist and head of the Critical Care Unit’s COVID-19 response at Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Wash.
Education: 1994 graduate of Altoona Area High School; 1998 graduate of Juniata College with degrees in biology and philosophy; 2002 graduate of Tulane University Medical School.
Family: Wife, Amy Lee; daughter, Kate, 9; and son, Andrew, 6; mother, Cheryl (Piper) Smith; grandparents, Richard Lee and Jeannine Fagley; and aunt and uncle Becky and Bill Young.
Quotes: “I am a system builder. I like to solve complex problems by putting a system in place to allow great doctors to do their best work to solve complex problems on a daily basis.”
“It is all about the patients, watching them get better. They come in at a challenging time in their lives. We see them at their worst moment and help them get through that.”