By Jessica Deese
Early voices play an integral part in how we understand ourselves and everything else. I am one of the lucky ones that had a childhood filled with people that affirmed that our world is founded on love and wonder, and I was very much a part of it. One of these people was Mr. Rogers.
He considered his show a serious, sacred endeavor and was not afraid to address the full emotional landscape of children, which includes the difficult realities of fear and anxiety.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news,” Rogers said to his television neighbors, “my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. ‘”
It might have been coincidental that an article on Fred Rogers popped up in my news feed the morning I was set to interview Dr. Rich Hatchett, but it’s much more wonderful to think that it was no coincidence at all. You see, Rich is one of these helpers that Mr. Rogers reminds us to look for in these particularly scary times.
Dr. Rich Hatchett is the CEO of Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI for short. Under Rich’s leadership, CEPI is helping lead the charge for coordinating the unprecedented global collaborative effort that will ultimately end this pandemic. In other words, he’s kind of a big deal.
As the older brother of one of my close friends, I knew Rich was intellectually gifted. He had graduated from Bayside Academy, finished his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt (on full academic scholarship) and was a medical student by the time I came around. I heard various stories about his childhood that highlighted his remarkable aptitude, curiosity, and work ethic.
First off, his parents didn’t realize he knew how to read till he accurately chided them for skipping over parts of a bedtime story at age four. Much to their surprise, he took over and correctly read it back to them, unabridged.
Before he was ten, he had read the entire encyclopedia from A-Z. For fun. In high school, he was the only person anyone knew that actually solved the Rubik’s cube.
What I did not know until interviewing his mother, Colleen, for this article, is that his personal narrative is also anchored in an almost tragedy that happened when he was not yet two. While his father was an MBA student at the University of Pennsylvania, the family decided to visit Bushkill Falls. Colleen shared that Rich quickly darted away from them, veered off the path and ended up rolling down the side of the gorge before falling, hitting his head, and landing in the water face first.
“My husband raced down and jumped in. Luckily, the water current was moving towards him, and Rich was carried right into his arms.” Another fortuitous factor in his rescue was that his father knew how to revive him. Just prior to the accident, a friend had shown him how to perform CPR on a young child.
“It’s a miracle he survived.” In the many retellings of this story throughout his childhood, “his dad always said God saved him for a purpose.” This has certainly proved to be true.
Having completed medical school, Rich was on ER duty in New York City on 9/11. He and the staff braced themselves for the influx of patients that sadly never came. In response to the city’s call for medical volunteers, he showed up the following morning at Ground Zero. It was a chaotic scene with no real system to handle the carnage, supplies and swarms of other well-intentioned volunteers. He jumped in and helped bring order in the midst of the mess.
“It was pretty remarkable how everyone checked their egos at the door, came together and channeled fear and anxiety into productive work,” Rich said. “It was hopeful and powerful and an incredibly energizing experience.”
During the chaos, he made the providential decision to collect the names of the other medical volunteers on site. Afterwards, he met with them to discuss how to better respond if a future disaster might occur, which at the time they worried might be imminent.
After those meetings, Rich drafted a Civilian Medical Reserve plan and shared it with local governmental authorities, hoping they would find it helpful. Turns out, they did. Unbeknownst to him, it kept moving up the governmental agency chain from the city then state and eventually to the national level.
While working an ER shift, he got a call. The person on the other end said it was the vice president’s office. Worried that his superiors were getting annoyed with his voluntary endeavors, he thought he was about to be scolded by a senior hospital executive. He realized his mistake when the person on the other end said ‘Major General Lawlor forwarded me your proposal.’ It was Vice President Cheney’s office.
They’d gotten a copy of his plan and wanted him to come up to DC to help develop a national Medical Reserve Corps. He postponed a planned fellowship at Duke, accepted the offer and joined his new wife Susan, already working in DC.
This began a 15 year public service career in various US government agencies, including the White House Homeland Security Council and the White House National Security Staff, eventually landing as acting Director of the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). While at BARDA he, oversaw programs against a variety of threats which included pandemic influenza, and emerging infectious diseases. The development of vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics was a big part of what he was doing. This put him in the perfect position to be considered for his current job.
At their 2017 annual meeting, the World Economic Forum (WEF) launched The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), “as the result of a consensus that a coordinated, international, and intergovernmental plan was needed to develop and deploy new vaccines to prevent future epidemics.” CEPI needed a CEO. Rich’s name got put into the hat and he got the job.
In a time where cooperation across borders has been waning, he has helped create what has the potential to be the world’s biggest multilateral effort to solve a universal problem. Under his leadership, CEPI partnered with the World Health Organization (WHO) and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to form COVAX, an alliance of over 186 countries, representing more than 90% of the world’s population, to ensure COVID-19 vaccines will be developed rapidly and distributed broadly and fairly.
In talking with him, I am immediately struck by his optimism and enthusiasm. It’s palpable, even over the computer screen. He is able to see the pathway to productive solutions. Just like he did with the Rubik’s Cube. And at Ground Zero. And here again.
“I have never prayed more for wisdom and clarity of vision, that I might do the right thing and be a vessel for bringing about justice and goodness,” he said adding, “We didn’t know if COVAX was going to work, we just had faith that it would. The only way to defeat the pandemic is to defeat it everywhere. So far the world is responding well to the structures we’re creating that enables productive cooperation to happen.”
Although Ground Zero was a monumental turning point for Rich, I think the voice of his father shaped how he experienced that moment. “You were saved for a purpose,” that early, defining statement has been a clear guide ever since.
Near the end of our conversation, his mom tells me, “In the midst of all the dangers he sees, he’s grown in his faith. They point him toward a creator and a purpose.” What a blessing. For him, and for us.
These are scary times. What voices are you listening to? Can you find the helpers? You will know them when you see them. They radiate, and fill you with hope, not despair. Look for them. Be them.
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