Behind the Mask

The COVID-19 frontline heroes

May 2020

Roberto Fontanez

Clinical Laboratory Scientist
New York City
Every test that I complete is allowing someone else to go out and do what their objective is. Our testing will impact others and allow them to know if they can go home and touch their families, hug their mother, kiss their baby.
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Is there any connection between serving in the US Navy and performing much needed COVID-19 virus testing?  According to Roberto Fontanez it’s a very similar experience. Roberto is a true New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and now living in Astoria. He was a medic in the Navy for 6 years and after an honorable discharge went back to school to study clinical science. “I knew I loved patient care, but I also loved the science and decided to go into medical technology. I was lucky to find something I loved to transition into as many of my fellow vets didn’t transition so well into civilian life.”

Reflecting on his life as a clinical laboratory scientist, Roberto notes how similar it is to the Navy, with respect to the camaraderie. “In a lab, we are all okay with being part of a bigger mission, there’s no grand-standing, you all work together to get the job done, and I love that! There’s a mission and a goal.” When it comes to the testing, he likens it to the military, “There’s a motto in the military, rely on your training, and I think that helps in the crisis we’re currently experiencing.”

Roberto’s career path has been an interesting one, moving from Clinical Hematology to Cancer research at Memorial Sloan Kettering.  He loved the science and genetic research but eventually the toll of working with pediatric patients where survival wasn’t guaranteed became too difficult. From there Roberto moved to manage the lab at a Fertility Clinic where the patient outcomes were often more hopeful, and it was an exciting change.  Due to the pandemic, of course, this was a non-essential business that closed.  Roberto was very keen to use his critical skill-set in clinical science and give back when he became aware of renegade.bio.  Through his scientific network, Roberto was introduced to the Californian team that had just arrived in New York and was immediately excited about the opportunity to work on Sars-Cov-2 testing!

“In fertility and embryology, it’s pretty straightforward and you’re not at risk of a patient dying. However, with this work, it’s considerably more dangerous. We need to follow very strict protocols and wear PPE, and ensure we are sufficiently protected from aerosols.  I know the concentrated samples can be dangerous, but for patients who are terrified of being positive and not knowing their disease status – I can’t imagine how scared they can be, not knowing if they’ll infect their loved ones, co-workers, their children.”

Considering the current situation in New York right now, Roberto considers the need for extensive testing, how he adapted to the mission and his desire to work in a COVID testing laboratory.

“There’s a military mindset of relying on your training, I knew I had to hunker down and do what I know. It helped me deal with the situation, being in an eerie city. I knew I had to be careful even going to work on mass transit.  There’s a cautious optimism in going back to work, where I know that the work that we do will allow other people to do the work they do. Every test that I complete is allowing someone else to go out and do what their objective is. Our testing will impact others and allow them to know if they can go home and touch their families, hug their mother, or kiss their baby. We are helping the first responders know if they’re safe and I like that we can give them answers so they can make better decisions. Renegade.bio gave me the opportunity to contribute – the impact of science is that we give answers and people can make choices based on those answers.”

This type of resilience and optimism is what makes New Yorkers unique, and as Roberto notes, that “fuggedaboudit” attitude is bringing the city out of this crisis.  We are very fortunate, Roberto is a valuable and essential part of the renegade.bio team, delivering peace of mind through wider accessible testing.

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