David Fajgenbaum lay in the intensive care unit five years ago battling a rare disease that inflamed his immune system so badly that multiple organs failed.

A former Georgetown University quarterback, Fajgenbaum’s once muscular body bloated as his muscles atrophied. His blood platelets fell so low, he could not risk shaving.

“All of sudden you start to see him wasting away,” said Grant Mitchell, who befriended Fajgenbaum at the University of Pennsylvania. “The transformation that occurred over a couple of months was staggering and terrifying.”

At his lowest point, Fajgenbaum’s condition grew so dire that a priest delivered last rites.

“Maybe it’s blind hope, but I really have very clear hope that if we can figure out what is going on, that there will already be a drug that exists. At all times we’re a day away from curing this thing. That five-year (timeline) goes out the window once we do that.” – David Fajgenbaum

After spending parts of six months in the hospital and undergoing various chemotherapy treatments, he rebounded and resumed his studies as a Penn medical student.

But his fight against multicentric Castleman disease — an immune system disorder without a known cure — only was beginning.

Fajgenbaum spearheaded research efforts that not only have reshaped the way healthcare professionals view his disease, but also could serve as a template for combating other rare diseases.

His accomplishments have led to a bevy of honors, including being named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list of healthcare minds. On Sunday, he’ll serve as the student speaker when he graduates with an MBA from the Wharton School.

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