April 13, 2022

Volunteering for vaccine research a family affair

Blood Bank director Jennifer Andrews, husband, Chris, and daughter Ella were volunteers in VUMC vaccine
research. (photo by Donn Jones)

The Disney dream was deferred. Jennifer Andrews, her husband Chris Murdock, and their 6-year-old daughter Ella were all packed for a trip to Disney World in early March 2020, when they joined much of the world in having their plans upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were supposed to leave on March 14 for spring break, but the lockdown happened so we canceled plans for our first trip to Disney World,” said Andrews, MD, associate professor of Pathology, Hematology and Immunology and medical director of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center Blood Bank.

Ella and her parents unpacked their suitcases and prepared to spend the foreseeable future living every aspect of life under one roof. Ella attended first grade online from a computer in the kitchen. Murdock operated his business, IQTalent Partners, a recruiting firm, from a home office upstairs.

And Andrews spent countless hours doing a job she had trained for all her life, but never thought she’d need to do: managing the blood supply for a major medical system buffeted by a worldwide pandemic. She worked with VUMC clinical staff and administrators to monitor and conserve the precious blood supply, while also diligently coordinating the planning and promotion of blood drives among those who were able to donate. Watching all this, Murdock, a Vanderbilt grad (BA ’99), could add to his many reasons to be impressed with his wife.

“I got to see Jen do her job because she had to do it from home, and watching her…was pretty magical,” he said.

So, school from home, work from home, canceled family outings — their lives were pretty much the same as a million other families. But each member of this family also had another reaction to the pandemic: Andrews, Murdock and Ella each participated in a different COVID vaccine clinical trial, all taking place at Vanderbilt.

Andrews went first, in August 2020, enrolling in the VUMC trial for the Moderna vaccine. “I needed to help the situation in any way possible. I felt really lucky to be included in the clinical trial,” she said.

Since the trial was blinded, she wasn’t sure at the time if she had received a vaccine or a placebo. As part of the trial, she monitored her health for any COVID symptoms, kept an electronic diary, and attended clinic appointments for blood draws and nasal swabs.

Then in November 2020, Murdock enrolled in the Janssen (Johnson and Johnson) vaccine trial.

“I’ve always been a big fan of science and the only way to really get out of this, you know, politics aside, is to get vaccinated. I knew that a vaccine would need to be tested and the only way to make sure it’s tested is to get volunteers for the trial — so I volunteered without hesitation,” he said.

Once COVID vaccines were available to the general public in early 2021, scientists and researchers quickly turned their attention to the pediatric population. The Moderna KidCOVE study started to enroll participants in March 2021.

From Ella’s point view, it was about time. She had seen her mom and dad and their commitment to helping bring forth vaccines that could help end the pandemic, and she wanted to do her part.

“I was kind of annoyed that my parents were in vaccine trials (and not me),” said Ella, for whom the words “sweet” and “spunky” appear to have been coined. “Then, once I figured out that there was a trial for kids, I said, ‘yes,’ because I wanted to help my fellow Americans and fellow humans too, fellow kids, to all feel safe from the virus and not feel like, ‘how long do we have to wear these masks?’”

Ella, who is now 8 and in third grade, has a grasp of the importance of vaccines that still escapes many adults.

“Well, what I know right now is [COVID] kills like millions of people if it spreads to another person. It’s really bad for humans to breathe it in or get it from somebody else. But if you’re vaccinated, it keeps you safe from the virus. You could still get sick, but you probably won’t die,” she said.

The Moderna and J & J COVID vaccine trials are led by C. Buddy Creech, MD, MPH, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, a team of dedicated, hardworking clinical trial investigators, nurses, coordinators, regulatory specialists, laboratory research specialists and administrators.

“This is definitely the first time in my professional career where we’ve been a part of multiple products receiving FDA authorization for use in such a short period of time,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say that vaccines will be seen as the principal reason we’ve been able to get to a place where our most vulnerable are protected from severe disease.”

Shanda Phillips, RN, BSN, CCRP, research projects manager of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, continues to visit with trial participants, closely monitoring volunteers from the same family.

“Our volunteers have kept us going especially when we have parents who feel they are comfortable enough to enroll their young children in our trials,” she said. “We have such an amazing team who work extremely well together, and I believe our volunteers see our commitment to each other and the project and are excited to participate.”

When she started her participation in the vaccine trial, Ella immediately shared the good news with her friends at school. The words still tumble out as she recalls that giddy time.

“We were walking from the library, and I told some friends that I was gonna get the first shot of the vaccine and one of them was like, ‘No, it’s not possible,’ but then the next day I showed them I had the Band- Aid and they were like, ‘whaaaat?’”

Ella was not only able to get the COVID vaccine earlier than other children, but she was also paid for participating. And her plans for spending the money far exceed a set of mouse ears from Disney World. “I put some in my college fund, and then I gave some to this foundation that helps build homes for homeless,” she said.

Overall, the three COVID vaccine trials at VUMC enrolled more than 550 participants, including several families. Being some of the first people to get the COVID vaccine (as it turns out, when the results were unblinded, both Andrews and Murdock had indeed received the vaccine and not a placebo), the family has already enjoyed a sense of normalcy again, despite the ebb and flow of infections as variants have emerged. They’ve traveled to Washington D.C. and California, and they’ve spent time with family and friends.

And while they have yet to make plans for a new Disney World adventure, to them, experiencing the happiest place on earth just might mean something else.

“I think what I’d like to see is more people looking at the data that we’re providing, that the overall vaccination rates are providing, and realize that getting vaccinated is a good thing. It’s a community thing and we just all need to do our part,” Murdock said.