By Nancy C. Williams
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles in honor of Doctors’ Day, Tuesday, March 30. The series looks at the medical family and how physicians serve as leaders in healthcare, their homes, and our community, especially during the pandemic environment.
As a member of a medical family, Hayden Parr wanted somehow to help in the COVID pandemic relief efforts. Yet when she first heard of a vaccine trial coming to our area last August, it gave her pause to worry—her future daughter-in-law, Molly Sharp, had announced at a family dinner that she wanted to volunteer for it.
“I was selfishly concerned this could potentially affect her future children, our future grandchildren,” Hayden admitted. “So, I immediately said, ‘That sounds awesome, but if you’d let me take your place in the trial instead, I would totally do it because I’m obviously done having children!’ She graciously declined my offer, but I was still worried.”
Hayden’s concern led her to read up thoroughly on mRNA vaccine technology and its development history.
“At that time, we had no idea how bad the spread of the virus would get in the next four months! The more I read about the development of mRNA vaccine technology, the more comfortable I felt that the vaccine would not harm Molly’s DNA. I learned that researchers had been brainstorming about mRNA vaccines since the 1990s. They were hopeful for an eventual cure for cancers because mRNA vaccine technology can target such a tiny specific spot of just the cancerous part of a cell. It could leave the healthy cells alone, which would be a major breakthrough.
“I learned that the mRNA in the vaccine does not even enter the nuclei where your DNA is stored. Instead, it interacts with your free-floating ribosomes in the cell cytoplasm to make whatever its map tells it to make.”
Hayden’s research also revealed that pharmaceutical firms had developed mRNA vaccines for multiple viruses, including SARS-CoV-1 and Zika viruses, but their methods never went through complete large-scale trials because many of those epidemics naturally ended in a short time. Just recently, they have also developed an mRNA vaccine for malaria, still awaiting approval.
“Some of the millions spent on all this previous research has gone directly to develop the COVID-19 vaccine,” Hayden said. “It’s possible that all vaccines in the future may move toward becoming mRNA vaccines. Along with their high specificity comes a very high level of effectiveness, plus they can be rapidly developed to address future epidemics…definitely the wave of the future for the world.”
In the end, Hayden was so impressed with the new mRNA technology that she decided to volunteer along with Molly and her son, Riley, for the local Pfizer vaccine trial. Hayden’s husband, Dr. Reagan Parr, is an orthopedic surgeon with Appalachian Orthopedics, and Riley is a second-year medical student at Quillen College of Medicine as well as an emergency medical technician. Hayden is a retired dentist and member of the Washington-Unicoi-Johnson County Medical Alliance, an organization that supports the local medical community.
Hayden, Riley, and Molly continue to stay in the Pfizer study, allowing further testing for immunity markers that will provide long-term data.
“It’s been an exciting adventure and kind of fun comparing various experiences with Riley and Molly, along with my Alliance friends who also joined the trial, Dr. Stacey McKenzie Means and Heidi Dulebohn,” she said.
Heidi, who is married to neurosurgeon Scott Dulebohn with Ballad Health Neurosurgery, was also enthusiastic about participating in Pfizer’s trial.
“When I read Hayden’s email about the opportunity, I immediately wanted to volunteer—I put my trust in Pfizer’s research and jumped in,” Heidi said. “For me, I felt that my spouse, as a healthcare professional, was doing his best to help others. I wanted to do the same, even though I am not a medical professional in any sense.”
Volunteering with Vaccinations
Karen Carver is a registered nurse whose husband, Dr. Chris Carver, is an orthopaedic surgeon with Watauga Orthopaedics. She is among a group of Alliance members actively volunteering now at several COVID vaccination sites around the Tri-Cities.
“After spending almost a year watching the devastation that this pandemic has caused and seeing how it has disrupted so much of our normal life, I wanted to be a part of the solution,” Karen said. “I wanted to help our community get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. We have suffered so much loss this year.
“In administering vaccines, I’m able to give individuals hope that there is an end in sight. I’m really proud of how well Northeast Tennessee has performed with the vaccine rollout.”
Karen has volunteered at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s Bristol Dragway vaccination site.
“As a nurse, I think we discount the impact of seemingly small tasks like administering vaccines,” she said. “COVID has demonstrated the harsh truth that these illnesses are life-threatening. I truly believe that what is being done there is life-saving for many.”
In addition to administering vaccines, Karen strives to be a source of accurate scientific information about COVID and vaccines.
“I urge those around me to get vaccinated,” she said. “I’ve been following the Facebook pages and calling health departments to schedule grandparents, parents, and friends for vaccines as they become eligible. “The medical system can be really complex to navigate for individuals who are not tech-savvy or don’t know where to go or who to ask. As healthcare providers, we realize that our opinions matter to those around us, and we want to be a trusted source of information when sometimes it is difficult to know what or whom to trust.”
Dr. Steve Peterson and his wife, Beth, have also volunteered multiple times at the Bristol Dragway. Steve is a MOHS/ENT surgeon with Tri-Cities Skin and Cancer. He has worked mostly in the post-vaccination area to monitor patients before they leave.
“Since I’ve already been vaccinated, my biggest concern is about getting run over by a car in the parking lot,” Steve laughed.
He firmly believes everyone should be vaccinated. “If you were vaccinated, you should help get others vaccinated,” he said. “The people are so happy and appreciative to have received a vaccine. They thank us for volunteering to help get so many through the lines each day.”
Beth, too, has worked in the post-vaccination lot as well as in registration and directing drivers.
“When I found out that medical experience was not required, I joined the Tennessee Medical Reserve Corps and signed up to work at the Bristol Dragway,” Beth said. “I had not received my Covid vaccine when I began volunteering, and initially I was concerned about contact and a possible infection. However, the clinic is a drive-through, with all the volunteers working outside and masked. It’s been nice to interact with people again.”
Beth said that the volunteers and staff at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department all are very positive about the work, even in less-than-desirable weather some days.
“The clinic patrons are so thankful, many waiting four or more hours in the lines. There is so much positive energy…I look forward to helping out each day.”
In addition to being one of the vaccine trial participants, Hayden joined her Alliance friends to work at the vaccination clinics in Bristol and at the Knoxville Expo Center.
“In Knoxville, the workers vaccinated maybe 700 people the day I volunteered,” she said. “At the Bristol Dragway, the busiest day so far has been when they vaccinated 1,900!”
Heidi has joined in, too, as a non-medical helper. “I can’t administer a jab, but I can wield a clipboard to help check-in.” Among the other Alliance members volunteering have been Madeline Becker, Melody Counts, Jaynie Early, Bethany House, Terry Geraci, and Peggy McQueen.
Karen said the best part of her vaccination work is seeing the smiles and sometimes tears of gratitude from patients. “Everyone has been so thankful to have access to this vaccine,” she said. “I had several people thank me for volunteering.
“The most meaningful is when individuals tell you that you are saving lives…it has been one of the most fulfilling things that I have been able to do as a nurse.”
The Washington-Unicoi-Johnson County Medical Alliance supports the local medical community, provides volunteer services and funds for health-related organizations, and promotes healthy lifestyles in the tri-county area. Check back next week for the next installment in the series.