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Dr. Beth Luthy nearly lost her son because people around her weren’t vaccinating their children against preventable diseases. She made a vow to change that and became a Shot@Life Champion. Shot@Life is a grassroots advocacy campaign of the United Nations Foundation that champions global childhood immunization by educating the public, engaging with policymakers and fundraising. Nurse practitioners (NPs) interested in supporting vaccination efforts around the globe can become Shot@Life Champions to gain valuable training, education and relationships with other advocates.
NPs are invited to attend the Shot@Life Champion Summit each winter in Washington D.C., where they can become Champions, gain in-depth information on current health news, sharpen their advocacy skills and meet with members of Congress on Capitol Hill. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners® (AANP) spoke with Dr. Beth Luthy about the powerful experiences that drove her to become a lifelong advocate for vaccination and an educator helping to lead the next generation of immunization advocates forward.
Beth Luthy: Around 2001, I was working two jobs as a registered nurse (RN). One of those jobs was working as a school nurse. While the job was great, some of the students I would treat as a school nurse had no access to health care and had parents who were struggling to make ends meet. I became that person who would work with families to triage care by calling family practices and begging them to see these patients, despite them having no money.
One day, while on a walk with my husband, I told him how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get these people access to care. By the time we had finished our walk, I decided I was going to go to school, become an FNP and see these people myself.
Luthy: I have two children who are now grown and have children of their own. When my firstborn son joined us, he was born with a condition known as biliary atresia. Without bile ducts, his liver had no way of getting rid of bile. We needed help getting him a liver transplant. At the time, Utah’s primary children’s hospital was not performing pediatric liver transplants. But we were willing to do whatever it took, so our son got a liver transplant in the University of Nebraska, and we stayed there for seven years until he was stable enough to move back home.
Our son was about 18 months old when he came home from his transplant. He should’ve been vaccinated, but you can’t vaccinate a kid who is on a ventilator and cannot mount an immune response. After the transplant, he received various immune suppressors so his body wouldn’t attack the new organ, which meant delaying vaccination again. He was about 5 years old before we could get him vaccinated.
I tried taking solace in the fact that people around us were vaccinated and he would be protected by everybody else, but that wasn’t the case. As a result, my son caught just about every vaccine-preventable disease and nearly died every single time. He caught chicken pox, rotavirus and whopping cough. It was horrifying, and I was angry that people weren’t vaccinating against these preventable diseases. If they would’ve vaccinated their children, then my son would’ve been protected until he was well enough to stand on his own two feet.
That’s how it started — a mother campaigning to recognize those who are vulnerable in our communities and rally to get everyone vaccinated to keep them safe. I became a lifelong immunization advocate. It came from being a mother — feeling helpless as my child struggled to breathe with a terrible case of whooping cough and staying up all night to make sure he didn’t stop breathing. I’ve got this story to tell, and I need to tell it so people get vaccinated.
Luthy: I was doing my part to fight vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. when I read a story about the difficulties of getting the polio vaccine to remote areas around the world. It took days of motor travel to get vaccines to children in a village where, normally, mothers would have to strap their babies to their backs and walk day and night to the nearest clinic to get their vaccinations.
The stark difference in vaccine availability in these parts of the world — and the sheer gratitude those mothers had upon receiving vaccines for their children — really inspired me to help. I came across Shot@Life, saw the number of organizations that have come together to deliver vaccines to these hard-to-reach places, and I needed to be a part of that.
The work Shot@Life does saves lives. When I think of the mothers in the world who are still living the nightmare of begging and praying for a way to protect their babies from illness, I can’t pass up the opportunity to be a part of a system that brings them life-saving vaccines.
Luthy: It was so magical getting to sit in the room with these inspirational speakers who represent organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and then get to stand up, introduce yourself and tell them, “This is who I am. I believe in what you’re doing, thank you for what you do and together we can do this.”
The strength that we get from each other is so much more cohesive when we are physically together. We received packets of information on our elected leaders, as well as Shot@Life’s talking points, and sat down together to figure out what we’d each say to them and practice our strategy in a manner that was hands-on and incredibly fulfilling.
Luthy: Like I mentioned before, I’m an academic. I teach NP students and actually had two students who were accepted to come to the Champion Summit. They got to learn how to get their elevator pitch down and do their strategic planning. It was amazing seeing them grow so quickly and get this important message across to our state’s senators and representatives.
As we were sitting in the airport on the way back home, we saw a few members of Congress who were unavailable to meet during the summit. I looked across at my students and pointed them in the direction of the congressmen. They stood right up, shook the congressmen’s hands and struck a conversation about vaccination. I was so proud to see them take the skills and knowledge they learned at the event and use it to spread this message to our elected leaders at whatever chance they get.
Luthy: NPs are critical. We’re movers, we’re shakers and we’re all in. Organizations like AANP are the ones that are going to help move things forward. You get a bunch of NPs together, and there’s nothing that can stop us.
Although sometimes the thought of getting [the word] out to Congress is a little frightening, you realize that elected leaders are people just like us. Introduce yourself, build your relationship with them and use that relationship to ensure that, when they have a question about immunization, they come to you for the answer. That’s when you know you’ve made it. That’s how I think we’re going to change the world.
As a Shot@Life partner, AANP encourages all health care providers to learn more about increasing vaccine awareness and disseminating information on how deadly vaccine-preventable diseases can be. Together, we can help ensure all children have access to life-saving vaccines.
Consider becoming a Shot@Life Champion to educate your community, advocate for continued funding for global childhood immunization programs and meet other Champions from all states and a variety of professional backgrounds. If you are interested in learning more about NPs who are Shot@Life Champions, browse the AANP News Feed.