They came by the boatful. On Sept. 11, 2001, 1,000 injured victims of the World Trade Center attacks in New York City crossed the Hudson River to receive emergency medical assistance at a makeshift triage area assembled in Jersey City’s Exchange Place pier. The wounded were met at the scene by then-emergency medical director of Hudson County, Robert G. Lahita, M.D., Ph.D., FACP, FACR, FRCP, and a small group of emergency medical technicians and paramedics. For Dr. Lahita, being at the location was an act of fate. Initially, he tried to drive into New York City to help victims, but was instead redirected to the York Street pier by police due to the closing of the Holland Tunnel.
For several hours, Dr. Lahita and his team provided the only medical aid at the site, his more than twenty years of experience as a physician and training in emergency operations preparing him to care for the individuals affected by that tragic day. Lacking medical supplies, Dr. Lahita utilized items from office buildings within the area to treat the wounded. Broken bones were treated with splints made of Venetian blinds and chairs served as stretchers.
“It was a great honor to be a part of that day,” said Dr. Lahita. “It was the natural thing to do. But I saw a lot of stuff that was very upsetting. That day was etched in my mind forever.”
Dr. Lahita’s selfless act personifies the Jesuit principle of “men and women for others,” a foundational element of the Jesuit education he received at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City, N.J. After graduating with a bachelor of science in biology in 1967, Dr. Lahita went on to obtain his Ph.D. in microbiology from Thomas Jefferson University and M.D. from Jefferson Medical College (both in Philadelphia, Pa.) before pursuing certifications in a number of areas, including as an EMT and in advanced cardiac support.
With a background in internal medicine, clinical immunology and rheumatology, he has served in various hospital appointments and positions, such as associate attending physician of The Rockefeller University and Hospital of Joint Diseases, both in New York; consultant for The Hospital for Special Surgery in New York; senior attending physician at Saint Luke’s Roosevelt Medical Center and Saint Vincent’s Medical Center, both in New York; and chairman of medicine, vice president and senior attending physician at Jersey City Medical Center in New Jersey. He currently serves as chairman of medicine, vice president, and chair of safety and performance improvement at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in New Jersey.
In addition to his medical credentials, Dr. Lahita is a leading authority on rheumatology and autoimmunity, as well as an expert on lupus – even being called to the White House in 1990 to treat “First Dog” Millie, former President George H. W. Bush's and former First Lady Barbara Bush’s English Springer Spaniel, who suffered from the disease. This concentration on immunology began when Dr. Lahita took a two-week elective course under the late Henry G. Kunkel – known as the “Father of American Immunology” due to his discoveries in the field – at The Rockefeller University.
“I’d love to see [lupus] eradicated before I die,” said Dr. Lahita. “But what we have to do with these diseases is figure out what causes them.”
In addition to his vast professional expertise, Dr. Lahita is also a teacher of medicine and has held numerous academic appointments, including associate professor at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and as director of Graduate Medical Education at Jersey City Medical Center. Presently, he is a professor of medicine and an adjunct professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, N.J.
Adding author to his extensive resume, Dr. Lahita has written 14 books (and currently working on a new book); co-written, edited and co-edited numerous articles; and completed more than 170 research papers on subjects ranging from lupus to rheumatology.
Despite his busy schedule, Dr. Lahita still finds time for community service. He is the former unpaid director of Hudson County’s Emergency Medical System and, for the past 22 years, has served as the volunteer emergency medical director for Ridgewood, N.J
“I love to help people,” he said. “That’s part of cura personalis, which I got out of a Jesuit education – to make the most of your profession, and do everything that you can do within your profession.”
Dr. Lahita credits his professional success to the Jesuit education he received from Saint Peter’s University.
He said, “In a scientific education where one takes chemistry, physical chemistry, physics and so on to prepare for medical school admissions, my education at a Jesuit institution was very different. As a scientist, it is not customary to be trained in theology, philosophy, and the liberal arts the way the Jesuits do it. It is, was and still remains quite unique. It is an untapped, extremely valuable education that most undergraduates do not have, to prepare them for the real world.”