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When Jad Abumrad’s father, a physician, said he was friends with Dolly Parton, the radio host didn’t believe him.
It turns out there are a lot of unbelievable things about Parton’s friendship with Naji Abumrad, and how it spurred the development of a vaccine against the coronavirus.
Here’s the short story: A donation that Parton made to Vanderbilt University, where Dr. Abumrad is a professor of surgery, helped to fund the early stages of research into the vaccine that was developed by Moderna. The company’s vaccine is one of two that preliminary analysis has shown to be more than 94 percent effective against the coronavirus and are being sped into development and distribution.
So, how did a country singer and songwriter become a benefactor of scientific research?
First off, Parton has a long history of philanthropy, much of it focused on her home county of Sevier County, Tennessee. She began her Dollywood Foundation in 1988 with a goal of helping local children find educational success. An early program gave $500 to seventh and eighth students who “buddied up” with one another when both graduated from high school. The dropout rate among those classes that were part of the program in Sevier County dropped from over 30 percent to 6 percent, according to the Buddy Program.
In 1995, Parton’s Imagination Library began donating books to young children. The foundation, which now has members around the world, has sent more than 147 million books to its participants. The Library was created in honor of Parton’s father, who was unable to read.
Parton also donated money to and raised funds for families who lost their homes in fires that swept through the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016. The My People Fund provided $1,000 a month for six months to over 1,000 families.
Parton and Dr. Abumrad met when the singer sought medical advice after a minor car crash in 2013. The two bonded over their poor mountain roots, although they were brought up more than 6,000 miles apart — Parton in Tennessee, Abumrad in Lebanon.
The two continued their conversations and, earlier this year, Parton asked Abumrad about the coronavirus. He told her about promising work that was being done by researchers at Vanderbilt, according to an interview with The Washington Post.
Soon after, Parton made a $1 million donation to the university to support its coronavirus research. The gift, she said, was in honor of her “longtime friend.” She encouraged others to donate to spur the needed research.
Mark Denison, who led Vanderbilt’s research team, said Parton’s $1 million donation helped fund the “critical” early stages of research and testing.
“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 told The New York Times.
Moderna announced on Monday that preliminary analysis had found its vaccine to be nearly 95 percent effective in preventing coronavirus.
“I’m a very proud girl today to know I had anything at all to do with something that’s going to help us through this crazy pandemic,” Parton said on the BBC’s “The One Show.”
Fans and others on social media have touted Parton’s many, and varied, successes.
“Shakespeare may have written King Lear during the plague, but Dolly Parton funded a Covid vaccine, dropped a Christmas album and a Christmas special,” the author Lyz Lenz said on Twitter.
Linguist and author Gretchen McCulloch wrote lyrics for a vaccine-related song to the tune of Parton’s famous “Jolene.”
“Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiiiiiiiiiiine, I’m begging you, please go in my arm,” she posted on Twitter, “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vacciiiiiiiiiiiiiine, please just keep me safe from covid harm.”
No matter the tune, Parton’s generosity is certainly something to sing, and be thankful, about.