Brody School of Medicine alumna exemplifies school’s mission in addressing 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 vaccine distribution. She wanted to do what she could to help keep the at-risk members of her community safe, but she did not want to get vaccinated herself, not for political reasons or historical racial concerns, but rather because she has always been terrified of needles.
After hundreds of vaccines were administered to the eligible community members at the event, a local physician who helped organize the vaccine event offered the volunteers in attendance an opportunity to also get vaccinated, so that no doses of the life-saving vaccine would be wasted.
Everyone but Horton raised their hand to request a vaccine. A short time later, the physician — 2005 Brody School of Medicine graduate Dr. Rasheeda Monroe — pulled her aside to find out why.
“I told her that I’m 50 and healthy,” Horton said.
“Right, 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 local hospital’s intensive care unit on ventilators. She also took time to answer all of Horton’s questions, address her personal concerns, and explain why it was important that as many people as possible get vaccinated.
Horton replied that she needed to pray on the decision. But before the end of the day, she had received her first vaccine dose.
“I was the last one. But I did get vaccinated that day, and I am glad I did,” Horton said. “She was extremely busy, but for her to care enough and to be compassionate enough to take the time to understand my personal concerns and to explain what she was seeing, meant a lot to me.”
This was not out of the ordinary for Monroe.
“We saw that story play out over and over,” said Monroe, a pediatrician at WakeMed and campus director to the UNC School of Medicine’s program in Raleigh. “When people had access to a physician who sat down to take the time to have a conversation with them, nine times out of 10 they were ready to be vaccinated.”
Not only did Monroe show the initiative to have a one-on-one conversation Horton, she was also a catalyst for the church’s vaccine event — and dozens of others — happening in the first place.
During a Jan. 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, that is 65% Black and was seeing rates of hospitalizations and deaths three times that of the rest of North Carolina, but this population was not being represented in (the line of) those who had access to the vaccine,” Monroe said. “We wanted to change that.”
Monroe and five of her Black female physician colleagues at WakeMed — who refer to themselves as “The Sister Circle” — started a social media campaign showing themselves getting vaccinated. Then, they contacted local organizations, health departments and churches to help host vaccine events in the most-heavily impacted communities, in hopes of reducing barriers to care and vaccine hesitancy.
Monroe and The Sister Circle — along with the community organizations, church groups and hundreds of other volunteers — were able to distribute more than 15,000 COVID-19 vaccines in the hardest hit communities. And they didn’t rely on events alone; they also hit the streets to help vaccinate the homeless population and made “house calls” to make sure home-bound senior citizens could also get vaccinated.
“At one point, we were doing clinics every Saturday, getting thousands of folks vaccinated and running multiple sites,” said Lechelle Wardell, community outreach and engagement coordinate for Wake County Public Health. “That vaccination work wouldn’t have happened without The Sister Circle and without Dr. Rasheeda leading that work.”
Bridging the health equity divide
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, based on hesitancy data, that there was a big distrust of the government,” Wardell said. “There was a lot of misinformation about what COVID was and there was denial that COVID even existed.”
They also had to address “the same story that’s been told over and over again,” Monroe said, of historically marginalized communities not having the same access to health care and many other services to help them be healthy and well.
“The things that made the Black and brown community in this area and around the nation, more impacted by COVID — the structural forces that shape those communities were still coming into play when it when it came time to have access to life-saving vaccines,” she added. “What we were seeing was people didn’t have a primary care physician and didn’t know how to get access. They might not have had transportation, they may not have had Internet access or they just weren’t plugged into the right resources.”
Instead of asking members of these communities to travel to the hospital or mass vaccine sites to get vaccinated, the volunteer organizers coordinated with area pastors to bring the vaccine to them.
“We started bringing it out to churches, because they’re trusted institutions in this community. Folks trust their pastors, they trust people that they know and they trust their black doctors,” Wardell said. “So, we worked to set up the vaccine sites here in the community to help people feel safe and equipped the pastors with information so they could also answer questions, do the recruitment and address the hesitancy.”
Rev. Mark T. Gibson, senior pastor of Redeeming Love Missionary Baptist Church in Raleigh, said that Monroe cold-called him directly to inquire about setting up a vaccine clinic at his church.
“It says so much about her character, her heart and her concern that she saw this was so important that she wanted to make sure she could personally relay to us — and we could actually feel — the passion she had for this vaccine project,” Gibson said. “And I’ll never forget that she held logistical meetings herself — with all of the pastors — to make sure everyone was on the same page, doing the same thing and making sure we were serving as many people as we possibly could. Dr. Monroe is a leader by example. She does not seek the limelight, she seeks results.”
Rev. 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. Her answer stays with me today. She said, ‘I saw a need.’ And then she simply stood up to meet that need,’” Stevenson said. “What I appreciated about that was it took us back to the day when physicians made house visits.”
Monroe started off with the initial goal of getting 300 people vaccinated at the first clinic. By the end of the first week, she had a list of more that 700 people requesting vaccines.
Soon, lines were wrapping around more than a dozen Raleigh-area churches every weekend and consisted of both people who already had an appointment to get vaccinated and people who were just hoping to get on a waiting list for a future event.
“When we provided that bridge and that opportunity to get access, we saw that people were willing, thrilled and excited to get vaccinated,” Monroe said. “And we were also excited to be able to play a small part in this. Because we felt like it was a race against COVID and we knew that every shot that we got in an arm, we were saving a life.”
She said her time at 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 who I learned from living that mission every day. I saw them going to farming camps on foot, during times when it wasn’t necessarily part of their job, to do work that they felt was important,” she said. “I saw that modeled for me as a medical student, so I just want to hopefully live up to the mentors that I had as a medical student.”
The community members who witnessed her in action during the COVID-19 pandemic say she already has.
“I believe that she not only exceeds the medical school’s mission, she sets the example for what any medical student should, would and could do,” Gibson said.
Stevenson said that if the Brody’s School Medicine’s goal is to ultimately to fulfill its three-pronged mission — to increase the supply of primary care physicians to serve North Carolina, to improve the health status of residents in eastern North Carolina and to enhance the access of minority and disadvantaged students to a medical education — then the medical school can “be very, very proud of Dr. Monroe.”
“She is the mission, and she walks it out with integrity and with tremendous passion,” he said.
Following her work during the pandemic, Monroe was awarded the Brody School of Medicine’s Distinguished Alumni Award, she was chosen to serve as the medical school’s keynote speaker during its May 7 commencement ceremony and has been featured in countless media interviews and social media posts.
“One of the things we say in The Sister Circle is it’s a shame that this is such a big deal, because it kind of puts a spotlight 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 is an honor to receive the recognition, but I wish it weren’t such a story.”