SISTER CIRCLE | Press services

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Brody School of Medicine alumnus exemplifies school’s mission to address health inequities

Edrisa Horton was eager to volunteer at a COVID-19 vaccine event at Macedonia New Life Church in southeast Raleigh during the early days of the vaccine distribution. She wanted to do what she could to help keep at-risk members of her community safe, but she didn’t want to get vaccinated herself, not for political reasons or historical racial concerns, but rather because ‘she’s always been terrified of needles.

After hundreds of vaccines were administered to eligible community members at the event, a local doctor who helped organize the vaccination event offered the volunteers in attendance the opportunity to get vaccinated as well, so that no dose of the life-saving vaccine is wasted.

Everyone except Horton raised their hands to ask for a vaccine. Shortly after, the doctor – 2005 Brody School of Medicine graduate, Dr. Rasheeda Monroe – took her aside to find out why.

“I told him I was 50 and healthy,” Horton said.

“Good, but we want to keep you 50 and healthy,” Monroe replied before explaining that there were otherwise healthy patients in their 20s who were in the intensive care unit of the local hospital on ventilators. She also took the time to answer all of Horton’s questions, address his personal concerns, and explain why it was important for as many people as possible to get vaccinated.

Horton replied that she needed to pray over the decision. But before the end of the day, she had received her first dose of the vaccine.

“I was the last. But I got vaccinated that day, and I’m glad I did,” Horton said. “She was extremely busy, but for her, being caring and compassionate enough to take the time to understand my personal concerns and explain what she was seeing, meant a lot to me.”

This was not unusual for Monroe.

“We’ve seen this story repeat itself over and over again,” said Monroe, a pediatrician at WakeMed and campus director of the UNC School of Medicine program in Raleigh. “When people had access to a doctor who sat down to take the time to have a conversation with them, nine times out of 10 they were willing to get vaccinated.”

Not only did Monroe show the initiative to have a one-on-one conversation with Horton, but she was also a catalyst for the church’s vaccine event — and dozens of others — that took place. in the first place.

At a January 2021 vaccination event at WakeMed’s Raleigh campus that drew more than 1,000 people, Monroe noticed there were very few — if any — people of color.

“We were sitting here in a zip code that had been really impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which was 65% black and were seeing three times the hospitalization and death rates of the rest. from North Carolina, but that population was not represented in (the line) of those who had access to the vaccine,” Monroe said. “We wanted to change that.”

Monroe and five of her fellow black female doctors at WakeMed — who refer to themselves as “The Sister Circle” — have launched a social media campaign showing themselves getting vaccinated. Then they reached out to local organizations, health departments and churches to help organize vaccination events in the hardest-hit communities, in hopes of reducing barriers to care and vaccine hesitancy.

It worked.

Monroe and The Sister Circle – along with community organizations, faith groups and hundreds of other volunteers – were able to distribute more than 15,000 COVID-19 vaccines in the hardest hit communities. And they weren’t just relying on events; they also took to the streets to help vaccinate the homeless population and made “home visits” to ensure that housebound elderly people could also get vaccinated.

“At one point, we were doing every Saturday, vaccinating thousands of people and managing multiple sites,” said Lechelle Wardell, outreach and community engagement coordinator for Wake County Public Health. “This vaccination work would not have happened without The Sister Circle and without Dr. Rasheeda leading this work.”

Closing the Health Equity Gap

The challenges these volunteers faced in getting community members vaccinated were more complex than typical “supply chain” issues.

Like the rest of the country, they had to overcome significant vaccine hesitancy.

“We knew from the wavering data that there was a lot of distrust in the government,” Wardell said. “There was a lot of misinformation about what COVID was and it was denied that COVID even existed.”

They also had to address “the same story that has been told over and over again,” Monroe said, historically marginalized communities not having the same access to health care and many other services to help them be healthy. good health and well.

“The things that made the black and brown community in this region and in the country more affected by COVID – the structural forces that shape these communities kept playing when it came time to have access to life-saving vaccines,” she added, “What we found was that people didn’t have a primary care doctor and didn’t know how to get there. They might not have transportation, they didn’t maybe they didn’t have internet access or they just weren’t connected to the right resources.

Dr. Rasheeda Monroe speaks with a WakeMed colleague in Raleigh.

Instead of asking members of these communities to travel to hospitals or mass vaccination sites to get vaccinated, volunteer organizers coordinated with pastors in the area to bring them the vaccine.

“We started spreading it to churches, as they are trusted institutions in this community. People trust their pastors, they trust people they know, and they trust their black doctors,” Wardell said. “So we worked to set up the vaccination sites here in the community to help people feel safe and provided the pastors with information so they could also answer questions, do recruitment and respond to hesitations. “.

Reverend Mark T. Gibson, senior pastor of Redeeming Love Missionary Baptist Church in Raleigh, said Monroe called him directly to inquire about setting up an immunization clinic at his church.

“It speaks volumes about her character, her heart and her concern that she saw it was so important that she wanted to make sure she could convey to us personally – and we could actually feel – the passion that she had for this vaccination project,” Gibson says. “And I’ll never forget that she held logistical meetings herself – with all the pastors – to make sure everyone was on the same page, doing the same thing and making sure that we served as many people as possible. Dr. Monroe is a leader for example. She does not seek the limelight, she seeks results.

Reverend Dr. Joe L. Stevenson, senior pastor of Macedonia New Life Church in Raleigh, vividly remembers the first time he met Monroe.

“It was at the first clinic here at the church and I asked her how she got involved in this effort. His answer stays with me today. She said, ‘I saw a need.’ And then she just got up to meet that need,” Stevenson said. “What I liked was that it took us back to the days of doctors doing house calls.”

Monroe started with the initial goal of having 300 people vaccinated at the first clinic. By the end of the first week, she had a list of over 700 people asking for vaccines.

Soon, lines were wrapping around more than a dozen Raleigh-area churches each weekend, and consisted of both people who already had an appointment to get vaccinated, as well than people who were simply hoping to get on a waiting list for a future event.

“When we provided that bridge and that access opportunity, we saw that people were willing, excited, and excited to get vaccinated,” Monroe said. “And we were also excited to be able to play a small part in that. Because we felt like it was a race against COVID and we knew that every blow we received in an arm was saving a life.

To serve

Monroe earned a bachelor’s degree from ECU in 2000 and then in 2005, she graduated from the Brody School of Medicine as a member of the prestigious Brody Scholars program.

She said her time in Brody prepared her for these volunteer efforts with The Sister Circle and to do what she could to serve underserved populations.

“Brody absolutely prepared me for the work we all did. Not just through our clinical rotations and who we worked with, but I saw the people I learned from living this mission every day. I saw them walking to agricultural camps, at times when it wasn’t necessarily part of their job, to do work they thought was important,” she said. “I saw this modeled for me as a medical student, so I just want to hopefully live up to the mentors I had as a medical student.”

Community members who have seen her in action during the COVID-19 pandemic say she has done it before.

“I believe she not only goes beyond the mission of medical school, but sets an example of what every medical student should, do, and could do,” Gibson said.

Stevenson said that while Brody’s School Medicine’s goal is to ultimately fulfill its three-pronged mission — to increase the supply of primary care physicians to serve North Carolina, to improve the health status of residents of eastern North Carolina and improve access for minorities and disadvantaged students to medical education – then the medical school can “be very, very proud of Dr. Monroe”.

“She is the mission, and she carries it out with integrity and with immense passion,” he said.

As a result of her work during the pandemic, Monroe received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Brody School of Medicine, she was chosen to be the medical school’s keynote speaker at its commencement ceremony on May 7 and has been featured in countless media interviews and social media posts.

“One of the things we say in The Sister Circle is that it’s a shame it’s so serious, because it kind of shines a light on the fact that we have so much work to do to build health equity. in this community and this country,” she said. “So it’s an honor to receive this recognition, but I wish it wasn’t such a story.”

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