Hunsung Heroes: Dr. Michael Russo '01 Fights Infection, One Case at a Time

In a pre-COVID world, infectious diseases were not top of mind for most, but for Michael Russo, M.D. ’01, it is all in a day’s work. As a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Dr. Russo treats children stricken with serious or uncommon infections, as well as those with underlying health problems or differences in their immune systems. CHOP’s sterling reputation as one of the premier children’s hospitals means his patients hail from all over the world. 

Dr. Russo has seen his fair share of serious illnesses, and while COVID cases have been milder in children, he remains cautious. “There is a low level of certainty about this infection and saying anything concrete has been difficult,” he explains. “Recently, there has been concern about an inflammatory syndrome that shares some features with Kawasaki disease. It is unclear if it’s all one illness.”

While potential mutations may be unsettling to some, it is precisely what interests him. “There are always new microbes, new infections, or infections that have reemerged. I like how there is always something new. It is always interesting and exciting.” He surprised himself when he realized he enjoyed pediatrics. “I never wanted to be a pediatrician,” he says. “I didn’t think I would have any interest in it. I used to say that I didn’t want to be a ‘sniffles doctor’ with crying patients who wouldn’t listen to you. As it turns out, I love it! Working with children is incredibly rewarding. There is immense joy—even in the halls of the hospital with sick children, you hear plenty of laughter.” 

Now, as a pediatric infectious disease specialist, Dr. Russo blends his affection for working with children with his interest in infections. “I am fascinated by how the same microbe or bacteria can cause incredibly different illnesses across the spectrum of ages.” 

Of course, nobody could have predicted the current pandemic. “The H1N1 pandemic occurred when I was in medical school, but the big difference is that it was a variation on a known virus. They are always different strains of influenza. This is significantly different.” 

Perhaps the only thing more powerful than his passion for discovery is his belief in the process—and patience. “We have all learned massive amounts and are continuing to do so, but there will be much more that we will learn. This is what is important about the scientific process. We reject and modify as we gather more data, and as the data changes, our response needs to change.” He urges others to be equally nimble in their mindset and to understand that changes are based on reason. “We should expect things to change. If we are doing something different now than a month or a week ago, it is because we are getting new and additional information. We are adapting our diagnosis and treatment because good science is being done.”

Of course, as an infectious disease specialist, going to work each day is a new potential exposure for Dr. Russo, but he takes it all in great stride. “I am fortunate to work for a system that started planning months in advance to help keep patients and staff safe. I have felt incredibly supported.”

He also counts himself lucky. “Folks in my division and others have worked long hours but what we have seen in pediatrics is not at all what various adult hospitals have experienced. Some of what they have gone through, I can’t fully contemplate.” 

As for a possible silver lining, Dr. Russo believes the pandemic has hammered home the importance of hand washing. “The world is covered in a thin layer of germs. Hand washing is simple, but it’s an incredibly powerful tool.” 

 

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