Flinn Scholar alums in health care reflect on COVID-19 vaccination

December 21, 2020

By Matt Ellsworth

Ben Lang, a 2008 Flinn Scholar from Flagstaff High School, is one of two Flinn Scholar physicians—2009 Scholar Aubri Carman is the other—completing a fellowship in pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School.

Over the past 35 years, students in the Flinn Scholars Program have pursued careers in dozens of fields, from software engineering, to the diplomatic corps, to filmmaking. But no area has drawn more Flinn Scholars—more than 80 in all—than health care.

In 2020, then, Flinn Scholar alumni across the country have assumed frontline roles responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

They range from Cathy Romero, a 1989 Flinn Scholar from Willcox High School, who now works as a family physician at the Gila Valley Clinic in Safford, serving the communities of rural southeast Arizona; to Shanan Immel, a 2011 Flinn Scholar from McClintock High School in Tempe, who graduated early from the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix to begin fighting the pandemic and began his internal-medicine residency in July at Tulane University in New Orleans.

And last week, such Scholar alumni were among the first wave of health-care workers who received the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine.

Here are three Scholars’ reflections on accepting the vaccine:

Flinn Scholar alum Shruti BalaShruti Bala

2007 Flinn Scholar, Barry Goldwater High School, Phoenix
OB/GYN, El Rio Community Health Center, Tucson

“Vaccines save lives. Some of the first vaccines I received when I was born in India were for tuberculosis and polio, of which the BCG vaccine is not routinely recommended in the United States due to the low prevalence of tuberculosis. Vaccines can help mitigate disease severity, prevent infection, establish herd immunity, and potentially eradicate disease.

“Over the past nine months, I’ve been exhausted, frustrated, angry, and tearful. I started my work day today seeing patients in our weekly COVID prenatal-care clinic and I end my day feeling hopeful.

“This vaccine is for my friends and family, many of whom I haven’t seen in months. It’s for my colleagues—all the nurses, staff, and physicians who continue to put in countless hours to keep our clinics and hospitals going even after seeing our coworkers get exposed and ill from this virus. And most of all, it’s for my patients, because I would love for you to not have pneumonia, require oxygen, or be on a ventilator during your pregnancy.

“To all of the healthcare/essential workers who are of reproductive age, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists strongly recommends that you should have access to the vaccine based on prioritization schedules from health departments. Even though there is limited data surrounding the safety and efficacy of this vaccine in pregnant or breastfeeding individuals, based on the mechanism of mRNA vaccines, it is expected to be similar to that of nonpregnant individuals.

“Public health saves lives. Happy vaccine day!”

Flinn Scholar alum Christy ObergChristy Oberg

1993 Flinn Scholar, Page High School
Hospitalist, University of Utah Healthcare, Salt Lake City

“Every medical intervention has risks and benefits. Nothing is risk-free, including this vaccination. But this is a risk 100% worth taking.

“I’ve been caring for COVID patients in the hospital for the past nine months, witnessing the suffering of not only the patients, but also their family and friends. It is heart-wrenching to watch a daughter crying at the window of her father’s ICU room, mouthing ‘I Love Yous,’ unable to hold him while he struggles. It is heart-wrenching every time a husband asks me to tell his wife how much he loves her the next time I’m in her room. It is suffering unlike anything I have seen in the nearly 20 years I’ve been doing this job.

“Today finally feels like a step in the right direction, a small victory. You can bet this is a risk I’m willing to take. I won’t breathe easy until my parents and all my neighbors can have the same opportunity, but today still feels like a good day.”

Tina Wu

1998 Flinn Scholar, Ironwood High School, Glendale
Associate Chief of Service and Medical Director for Emergency Medicine, Tisch Hospital, New York City

“Many people have asked questions about the vaccine and why I volunteered:

  1. We have an enormous responsibility as healthcare leaders and frontline workers to show that this vaccine is safe. The FDA has said that there were ‘no specific safety concerns.’ And even though it’s an oxymoron, I have faith in science.
  • For my patients: I want them to feel safe coming to the hospital and getting treated.
  • For my family: I want to hug my parents without fearing I’m going to be the vector who takes them down.
  • For my staff and co-workers: I won’t tell you to drink a potion that I won’t chug first.
  • Am I afraid? I was thrilled to get the vaccine today. For the people who said that I was ‘brave’—I’m not brave, I’m lucky to be taking part in this scientific breakthrough.
  • What did it feel like? Nothing—a nothing vaccine. I was more nervous speaking to the press. I have no side effects, but I’ll keep you posted.”