Can we all just take a moment and acknowledge what a terrific person Dolly Parton has turned out to be? She’s a legend with country music lovers and she has entertained the world for decades. Now she is receiving some well-deserved kudos for an act of philanthropy. A very generous donation given by Dolly to Vanderbilt University contributed to the development of a coronavirus vaccine.
The story began seven years ago when Dolly Parton was in her first automobile accident. She wasn’t seriously injured but she was sore and bruised so she sought treatment at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She met Naji Abumrad, a physician and professor of surgery, and a friendship soon developed. Because of this friendship, Dolly a $1M donation to the university in April in honor of her friend, Dr. Abumrad. The money was dedicated to supporting research teams working to perfect treatments and cures for COVID-19. At the time she said, “What better time right now, we need this. I felt like this was the time for me to open my heart and my hand, and try to help.” So she did and it did.
At the time of her donation, Vanderbilt University acknowledged other acts of generosity from the singer/songwriter/actress/businesswoman.
“Dolly’s amazing generosity is a source of inspiration and will have a lasting impact on the battle against COVID-19,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, President and CEO of VUMC and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“She cares so much about helping others and we are very grateful for her ongoing support. These funds will help us complete promising research that can benefit millions in their battle with the virus.”
Parton has been a generous donor to VUMC. Among her gifts was a transformational contribution to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt Pediatric Cancer Program in honor of Abumrad and her niece, Hannah Dennison, who was successfully treated for leukemia as a child at Children’s Hospital.
Parton’s $1M donation partially funded the biotechnology firm Moderna’s experimental vaccine. The vaccine is reported to be 95% effective.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Abumrad recalled how Parton’s curiosity about Vanderbilt’s coronavirus research led to a gift that helped fund the vaccine that could be one of two available in the United States on a limited basis by the end of the year.
Among the agencies and universities listed as funding sources for the Moderna vaccine was “the Dolly Parton COVID-19 Research Fund,” which left some on social media joking about singing the refrain of her hit “Jolene” replaced with the word “vaccine.” The doctor said he was elated over his friend’s contribution to the early stages of a vaccine that eventually received nearly $1 billion in federal funding.
“Her work made it possible to expedite the science behind the testing,” Abumrad, 76, said on Tuesday night. “Without a doubt in my mind, her funding made the research toward the vaccine go 10 times faster than it would be without it.”
Dolly is doing interviews, promoting her new album (“A Holly Dolly Christmas”) and Netflix musical (“Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square”). She was asked about her part in the vaccine development on the TODAY show Tuesday morning. “I’m just happy that anything I do can help somebody else.”
Though her contribution alone didn’t produce the vaccine, her donation was crucial in the early stages of research and testing. Mark Denison, a physician, and professor of pathology, microbiology, and immunology said her money “went a long way.”
“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Denison said.
Though the promising news surrounding the Moderna vaccine was far from an individual achievement, Denison told the New York Times that Parton’s $1 million donation went a long way toward funding the “critical” early stages of research and testing.
I knew she was very generous to her employees and that she kept her Dollywood employees on the payroll as long as possible after the coronavirus lockdowns began. She donates free books to children through the age of five, over a million books per year. In 2018, she donated her 100 millionth book to the Library of Congress. Now she has the financial support for the medical community to add to the list. She has given us the feel-good story for which we’ve all been waiting.