Turning a loss into a legacy

COVID-19 victim’s family celebrates their daughter’s life by establishing scholarship fund


By Norah Machia    

When she was just 11 years old, Adeline Fagan decided she wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. It didn’t come as a surprise to her parents, Brant and Mary Jane Fagan of LaFayette.

The bold decision was announced by Adeline just days after she started walking on her own again, following several months of being confined to a wheelchair. Adeline had been battling a serious neurological condition called “Complex Regional Pain Syndrome” that left her with debilitating leg pain, her father said.

Adeline was treated by a highly-skilled orthopedic specialist who really took the time to listen to her concerns, Fagan said. Despite her young age, the physician was straightforward about the seriousness of her medical condition and the months of rigorous physical therapy that would be needed for Adeline to recover.

At the same time, he was positive and encouraging. Adeline stuck to the grueling physical therapy routine with the help of her parents, and it paid off. After several months, Adeline was able to walk again.

“That experience cemented her decision to become a physician,” said her father. “She was so impressed and motivated by the doctor who helped her recover, that she came away determined to enter the medical field.”


A bright student with a promising career

After graduating from Bishop Ludden High School, Adeline obtained her bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. She decided to take a gap year before attending medical school to work as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) and gain more hands-on experience caring for patients. She enrolled at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at SUNY University at Buffalo, where she made it a priority to meet and also memorize the names of all 144 students in her class, according to her parents.

Adeline eventually decided to pursue a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology. “She loved babies, but also took women’s issues very seriously, and that field was a good combination of both,” Fagan said.  After graduation, she started her residency program at a hospital in Houston.

She was in her second year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.


Dr. Adeline Fagan with a young patient at a clinic in Haiti, where she often traveled to volunteer.

Adeline’s medical challenge

Sick patients began flooding the emergency room at the Houston hospital, desperately seeking treatment against the deadly and highly contagious virus. Adeline was practicing in the maternity unit, trying to stay focused on caring for pregnant patients and helping deliver babies.

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, Adeline was asked to complete a rotation in the hospital’s emergency room. But Adeline voiced concern because she had asthma, a serious underlying medical condition. At first, she was allowed to continue practicing in the maternity unit, her father said.

But after several weeks, Adeline was told she had to complete the rotation in the hospital’s ER to fulfill her residency requirements, Fagan said. On July 8, 2020, after working a 12-hour shift in the ER, Adeline returned to her apartment and was soon experiencing “a terrible headache and extreme fatigue,” he said.

She returned to the hospital and tested positive for COVID-19.

Adeline went back to her apartment to isolate, but her condition quickly deteriorated. Her sister and roommate, Maureen, rushed Adeline back to the hospital when she started struggling to breathe.

Now the physician herself was admitted as a COVID-19 patient.


The battle against COVID-19  

Adeline was treated with several different respiratory therapies and a multitude of drugs, but her health continued to decline. The decision was made to transfer her to another facility for a higher level of care, where she was put on a ventilator and later on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a specialized life support.

“She was too weak for FaceTime calls, but we believed the sound of our voices would comfort her, even if she could not respond,” her father said. “The nurses put the phone on Adeline’s pillow and kept the line open so we could take turns talking to her.”

Adeline’s sisters, Emily, Maureen and Natalie, took to their social media accounts to raise awareness that anyone – even younger people in their 20s and 30s – could get sick with COVID-19. They also raised funds online to help pay for medical care, travel expenses and the expected cost of future rehabilitation.

 Adeline fought against COVID-19 for two months.

But on Sept. 19, 2020, the bright 28-year-old physician passed away after suffering a sudden massive brain bleed.


Dr. Adeline Fagan, third from left, with her parents, sisters and brother-in-law.

Struggling to move forward after a tragic loss

Her family was devastated. They had believed Adeline would be returning home to Central New York for long-term rehabilitation.

As time passed, her parents decided that Adeline’s dream of saving lives should continue through the actions of others. Specifically, medical students enrolled at Adeline’s alma mater, the University at Buffalo.

The Fagan family donated approximately $80,000 to the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences to establish a scholarship endowment fund in Adeline’s name. The donation came from the remaining funds set aside for rehabilitation expenses.

Adeline’s former classmates, medical school alumni, staff and faculty, along with physicians affiliated with the medical school through outpatient clinics and community hospitals, also contributed to the endowment fund.

It has now reached a total of $128,000, said Kathy M. Swenson, senior director of advancement at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The first scholarship in Adeline’s name is expected to be awarded next spring.

Adeline’s tragic death affected many people who knew her personally or had learned about her story through news reports, Swenson said. “She was a bright shining star in the medical field,” she said. “Her life and her story have touched so many people.”

The Fagan family “suffered such a tragic loss, but they have chosen to support other young people who have the same dreams as their daughter,” Swenson said. “They are really helping to foster the next generation of physicians.”


Continuing Adeline’s legacy

Adeline was passionate about providing medical care to those who could not afford it and had worked at clinics for the underserved in Buffalo and Houston. Her strong desire to help people in desperate need eventually took her to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Adeline volunteered at a clinic through the medical school’s global outreach program, and she had returned to Haiti more often than any other student in her class, her parents said.

The family plans to award the scholarship to a student who “reflects Adeline’s passion for learning and her strong desire to help people,” her father said. “We expect they will embody the same characteristics as Adeline – a friend to everyone, a passion for helping the underserved, and an interest in world health issues.”

The Fagans are continuing to support the scholarship endowment. They have a fund-raiser scheduled for the LaFayette Apple Festival being held Oct. 9 and 10 in Apple Valley Park. The family is hoping to sell nearly 500 loaves of homemade apple spice and pumpkin bread to benefit the scholarship fund.

A crowdfunding page has been set up for online gifts to the Adeline M. Fagan, MD ’19 Endowed Scholarship:  https://crowdfunding.buffalo.edu/project/22796. Donations may also be made by calling toll free 1-855-448-3282.

For those who prefer mailing a donation, the address is University at Buffalo Foundation Inc., c/o Adeline M. Fagan, MD ’19 Endowed Scholarship, P.O. Box 730, Buffalo, NY 14226-0730.


Editor’s note: Norah Machia is the author of Celebrating Their Lives: Turning the Loss of a Loved One into a Legacy for Helping Others (Highpoint Life Publishing 2021). Her book profiles families who sought meaningful ways to honor the lives of those who had passed away, often unexpectedly, by showing tremendous acts of kindness and compassion for others. Adeline’s story is included in the book.