This is the speech I've been waiting to hear.
Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.
In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:
Photo courtesy of John Scully
When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.
"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.
John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.
"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.
"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."
Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.
In March of 2020, the world shut down because the COVID-19 pandemic was raging across the country and the world. Once again, people didn't know much about the virus — and they didn't really know how to keep themselves safe, except to just lock themselves in their homes and avoid other people, so John and his wife hunkered down in their Florida condo, miles away from their children.
"The most challenging aspect of the shutdown was just the feeling of helplessness," he says, especially as the pandemic began to take a toll on his family.
"My son is a pilot and hasn't been able to fly since the lockdowns started," he says. "My daughter and her husband had to work from home while taking care of their 9-month-old baby because their daycare had shut down. Then later, both lost their jobs. [Editorial Note: John Scully is the author's father.]
The hardest thing, though, was being unable to visit his mother, who was 104 and living in Minnesota in an assisted living facility for all of 2020. They talked on the phone every day to help her cope with the isolation but it took a toll on her. By January of 2021, her eyesight had deteriorated, she had a few bad falls, and it was clear she needed extra care. So he and his siblings made the decision to move her into a nursing home.
Within a week, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and she died on January 30, 2021 after a 10-day battle with the virus. "I was angry when my mother got COVID," he says, "because it felt like massive incompetence. Over 100 residents and staff got COVID in the facility where she died."
It hurt too that this loss came around the same time as hope seemed to be in sight: Vaccines had arrived and he and his wife were eligible. They got their shots at a drive-thru site. He celebrated by seeing his grandson — who was now 21 months old — for the first time since December of 2019. "We got to be there for his first swimming lesson in our pool," he says.
For John, his experiences living through both the polio epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic in his lifetime have driven home the importance of vaccines for public health. "I am much less worried than I was in 2020, and I am becoming more optimistic as the success of the vaccine effort is being realized, but I am still concerned about how many will resist getting the vaccination," John says. "And I'm worried about the viruses out there that we don't know about."
"But I'm confident science can find a way," he adds. "I'm hopeful for the future."
Photo provided by Walden University
Dr. Alvin Cantero has always wanted to help others. He had been a physician in his native Cuba and, after immigrating to the United States in 2009, he decided to get his degree in nursing practice to provide for his family back home. He also wanted to help underserved communities, so while working towards his master's degree in nursing science and doctoral degree in nursing practice at Walden University, he opened a clinic in a Hispanic and African neighborhood of Houston, Texas.
"The aim was to provide quality care to underserved people, like the homeless, veterans, immigrants, refugees, and all the people who don't have enough resources to find other care," he says.
When the pandemic hit Houston, a number of clinics shut down. But he refused to shut the doors of his clinic. He knew his patients didn't have anywhere else to go.
"A lot of my patients got very scared. They had nowhere to go and they started getting infected after believing that the pandemic was just like the typical flu or a cold," he says. "Then, when people started dying, they got even more scared."
"My patients increased from 10 to 15 patients a day to 50 to 60 a day," he continues.
"I offer my clinic as a shelter for those patients," he says. And in the process, he says, he fulfills an important role when he gains their trust: he helps educate them about the importance of preventative care while combating misinformation about science, healthcare, and the role of vaccines in keeping people safe.
He first encountered this kind of misinformation when he was working on his doctoral thesis on Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines at Walden University. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, which can lead to six types of cancers later in life. He encountered a number of parents that were hesitant to administer the vaccine to their children. "They were afraid it would induce early sexual relationships," he says, "or have negative psychological effects."
This experience with vaccine hesitancy, he says, was invaluable in helping shape how he would later approach educational efforts about preventative care with his patients at his clinic — especially after the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines.
"I have some patients that told me they don't want the [COVID-19] vaccination because they heard things that aren't right," he says. "They believed a lot of conspiracy theories."
So he does what he can to educate them — which begins by telling them why he got vaccinated, himself. "I tell them, I have to protect you, I have to protect my family, I have to protect my community, so I got the vaccine" he explains. "I show them my vaccination card and then I explain about the benefits [and risks] of vaccination and why the conspiracy theories are not true."
"You cannot be pushy," he continues. "You have to be patient. You have to do it through family intervention and you also have to do it through the community." That's why, Alvin says, he regularly goes to the YMCA and local churches to speak about the importance of vaccines.
"Vaccinations are a very important part of preventative care nationwide and we still have a long way to go in educating the population and discontinuing the spread of misleading information that has no scientific basis," he says. That's why it's important to "work closely with community leaders who can help us change negative perceptions of vaccines within underserved communities. This can prevent further outbreaks of preventable diseases, such as measles."
So far, Alvin is optimistic that the future of medicine will see less fear around vaccines. "More patients and families are coming into my practice seeking help and guidance to register for their COVID-19 vaccinations," he says, "and they're also inquiring about continuing regular immunization schedules for their children and teenagers."
"I'm very optimistic," he continues, when asked whether he thinks these educational efforts will pay off post-pandemic. "There will be a huge positive change in primary care moving forward."
Photo courtesy of Ingrid Scully
Pfizer scientist Ingrid Scully (no relation to John Scully) has never doubted the importance of vaccines.
"To paraphrase a great scientist in the field of vaccines, after the provision of safe drinking water, vaccines have had the greatest impact on human health," she says.
In fact, this is part of why Ingrid went to work in vaccine research and development after her postdoctoral fellowship.
"I have always loved the natural world and we watched a lot of PBS at home," she says. "My grandparents bought me National Geographic books, and I would memorize facts about different animals." Later in life, educators helped foster her love for science, including one who introduced her to immunology, the study of the immune system.
"What I loved most about immunology is that everything is connected," she says.
Ingrid has been working at Pfizer for 16 years now. "I lead teams that develop tests to see if the vaccines we are developing 'work,' — whether the vaccines cause the body to make an immune response that fights the germ, or pathogen," she says. "We are trying to understand what immune response patterns correlate with protection against a given pathogen."
"The ultimate goal is to be able to predict whether a vaccine will be protective early on in development, and to be able to tailor the immune response to a pathogen and to a certain population," she continues. "One exciting new application is the development of vaccines for pregnant women, to protect their newborn babies from diseases, like respiratory syncytial virus, which makes it hard to breathe, and group B streptococcus, which causes sepsis in newborns."
In addition, she says, "I'm very excited about our ability to harness mRNA technology for vaccines. This is a very flexible platform that has the potential to revolutionize vaccines."
For Ingrid, the most exciting moment in her career has been working on the COVID-19 vaccine — and being a part of a critical rollout. "It's humbling, exhilarating, exhausting. Maybe not in that order," she says.
"We've seen this past year what a profound impact infectious disease can have on everyday lives, how much energy is required to stay safe," she continues. "We have not seen so clearly the impact of what we do as we have in the past year. It drives us scientists on."
That's why she's confident that science will win — and make the world better by improving human health.
"I hope that the silver lining of the pandemic is that more young people, from all backgrounds, will choose to become scientists," Ingrid says. "The best thing in the world was when my 6-year-old daughter told me, 'Mama, I'm so proud of you. You're helping beat the virus.'"
That gives her hope.
"When we put our minds to it, we are empowered through science to find ways to address healthcare problems," she says. "There are thousands of dedicated scientists working on vaccines. We do this job because we want to make the world a better place. To help protect babies and grandparents around the world. To unlock human potential by reducing disease."
When my friend Jenny Levison told me she was launching what she called a "Kindness Tour," in the middle of the pandemic last year, I thought she'd lost her mind.
Levison is a celebrity chef and the owner of five "Souper Jenny" restaurants in the Atlanta area. To say that she walks to the beat of her own drum is an understatement. Once she makes her mind up to do something, there really isn't any stopping her. And she is someone who is committed both in her life and her work to giving back, paying it forward, and helping those who need it -- even if that means renting an RV, covering it with peace stickers, and heading out on the road to give away free food for weeks at a time.
Levison tells me that the first "Souper Jenny Kindness Tour" was born out of a drive to help people having a rough time in 2020. Knowing how hard the restaurant industry was hit and all the people who were impacted by it, she launched a six-week tour from Atlanta to California last October.
"Everyone was struggling and frankly, I needed some hope as well. I called one of my besties and told her what I wanted to do. I wanted to hop in an RV, drive west and start to spread the word that hope and joy were still alive and kindness was the new cool."
She says the first trip was "life-changing."
"We walked the bridge in Selma, which I've never done before and I could feel the weight of our history. We brought a wagon filled with quarts of soup and we handed them out on the bridge. Someone told us about some low-income housing in the area. So, we headed over. This white Jewish girl showed up in their neighborhood and I was welcomed with open arms by the community," Levison says.
She and her friend, and co-captain on their wild adventure, Meg Gillentine Morris, stopped at local farms and bought out their produce. They'd use the produce to make soup and find ways to feed communities in need. They'd set up socially distant takeout tables and give away free soup in the RV parks where they stopped. They'd leave quarters for people to do their laundry in laundromats. They did a free grocery drive in Lake Charles, Louisiana, after a double hurricane hit the area. They fed firemen in Irvine, California, after the wildfires, visited a South Los Angeles cafe to help support their weekly free grocery drive, and fed the homeless in Skid Row.
"We not only wanted to touch those in need but also just random strangers that could use a smile that day."
Fast forward to today -- the Souper Jenny Kindness Tour 2.0 launched on April 26.
Levison and Morris made their first stop in Colliersville, Tennessee to meet a very special 10-year-old girl who started her own kindness journey this year. Levison says her name is Deontra and she shows up at her favorite places, like a hospital, fire station, Target, or a local restaurant, with snack bags and drinks and simply thanks people for their service. Levison supplemented her snack bags with quarts of soup.
While in Colliersville, Levison also handed out 50 quarts of Turkey Chili to bus drivers and anyone else they came across.
Levison has her own nonprofit called The Zadie Project dedicated to feeding Atlanta's hungry children, families, and seniors. The name honors her father, Jarvin Levison who is known as Zadie (Yiddish for grandfather).
"He is my inspiration for cooking and my motivation for getting involved in my community. He also gave me my very first soup recipe, My Dad's Turkey Chili. In our 18 year history, it is still our most popular soup."
Their next stop was Nashville, where they scrubbed and filled two community fridges, and showed up at the local Waffle House and other local fast-food restaurants to thank workers with free gift cards.
But Levison and Morris aren't just about giving away free food or money, they also take the time while hiking around and exploring wherever they're staying to just bring a smile to someone's face by complimenting them. "Kindness is easy. Kindness can be free," Levison says.
When the two kindness queens landed in Washington D.C. they treated 50 to 60 vaccine workers to an afternoon of pastries and coffee -- just because.
"People ask how I've funded this and let me tell you the answer -- I'm prepared to figure it out! I may end up using my paycheck to spread the kindness gospel, but humanity has been incredibly generous. People hear what we've been doing and they want to get involved. Sometimes, you don't have the time to do the deed and we can do it for you!"
There were people who have donated to make both of the Kindness Tours possible via a GoFundMe page, in addition to dozens in the Atlanta community and Levison's close family and friends, and a significant donor in Sara Blakely and The Spanx Foundation.
The tour ends May 15, if you're interested in following along you can just use @followingsouperjenny or @Meggillentine via Instagram or Meg Gillentine Morris or Jennifer Levison on Facebook.
Rebekah Sager is an award-winning journalist and author with over a decade of experience as a general assignment reporter and writer. She has contributed to the Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, VICE, and more. Her essay is featured in "Chicken Soup for the Soul: I'm Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage, and Hope," available June 2021.
"I love being a nurse because I have the honor of connecting with my patients during some of their best and some of their worst days and making a difference in their lives is among the most rewarding things that I can do in my own life" - Tenesia Richards, RN
From ushering new life into the world to holding the hand of a patient as they take their last breath, nurses are everyday heroes that deserve our respect and appreciation.
To give back to this community that is always giving so selflessly to others, CeraVe® put out a call to nurses to share their stories for a chance to be featured in Heroes Behind the Masks, a digital content series shining a light on nurses who go above and beyond to provide safe and quality care to patients and their communities.
First up: Tenesia Richards, a labor and delivery nurse working in New York City who, in addition to her regular job, started a community outreach program in a homeless shelter that houses expectant mothers for up to one year postpartum.
Tenesia | Heroes Behind the Masks presented by CeraVe www.youtube.com
Upon learning at a conference that black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health, Richards decided to take further action to help her community. She, along with a handful of fellow nurses, volunteered to provide antepartum, childbirth and postpartum education to the women living at the shelter. Additionally, they looked for other ways to boost the spirits of the residents, like throwing baby showers and bringing in guest speakers. When COVID-19 hit and in-person gatherings were no longer possible, Richards and her team found creative workarounds and created holiday care packages for the mothers instead.
"The packages were personalized to each mother with their names, a hand-written love note from the nursing team and items based on their pregnancy stage (which trimester, pregnant/postpartum) including newborn items (bottles, pacifiers, diapers, wipes, toiletries), toiletries and maternity clothes from the mother, as well as self-care items (journal, uplifting reading books, aromatherapy). My favorite part of the care package was hand-made quilts created by an 80+ [year old] retired doctor."
Courtesy of CeraVe
Continuing with her service, Richards is currently working on starting a non-profit organization, Our Mommas Heal, an expansion of the work that she's already doing in the community. "Our goal is to be the advocates for these at-risk mothers by connecting them to the necessary resources to ensure they have a high-quality, safe, equitable, uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery: education, other organizations like nurse family partnership, vetted health care providers," said Richards.
As a dermatologist-developed brand rooted in the medical community, CeraVe® is committed to supporting and celebrating healthcare professionals like Nurse Richards. Richards' story is the first of four we'll be sharing in the coming weeks.
As part of its commitment to nurses, CeraVe® is also a proud sponsor of the ANA Enterprise and their Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation™ initiative, a movement designed to transform the health of the nation by improving the health of the nation's 4.2 million registered nurses. Through the initiative, ANA is connecting and engaging with nurses to inspire them to take action in five key areas: activity, sleep, nutrition, quality of life, and safety.
Additionally, over the past year, CeraVe® has donated more than 500,000 products to hospitals to help provide therapeutic skincare relief to healthcare workers and is continuing the product donation efforts. Nurses looking to engage with the brand and learn more about these initiatives can join the Shift Change: Nurse Essentials Facebook group, an online community hosted by CeraVe® where nurses come together for personal and professional empowerment.
To see more stories about nurse heroes, visit www.heroesbehindthemasks.com/.