David Rush, left, and brother Michael Rush, right.

Athletics and pharmacy typically aren’t entities that converge. Peanut butter and jelly? Yes. Stevie Ray Vaughan and a Fender Stratocaster? Indelibly. Nerf guns and brothers? Absolutely. Which actually brings us back to that seemingly incongruous athletics/pharmacy concept.

“Being from two completely different professions, it takes a lot of stars to align for our worlds to cross, but that’s what happened,” said Ohio Northern University alumnus and professor Michael Rush, PharmD ’05, referencing his brother, David Rush, BSSM ’11, assistant athletics director for Kent State University.

Credit the pandemic with this metaphorically celestial event. The Rushes, who grew up in Ada, Ohio examining and testing what David characterized as the “mystique” of ONU while pulling typical kid-related hijinks, both found themselves orchestrating a vital endeavor this year through their respective educational institutions: offering state-sponsored COVID-19 mass-vaccination clinics. While Kent State’s clinics have all been held on campus at the field house, ONU’s Raabe College of Pharmacy HealthWise Mobile Clinic primarily has been traveling to rural locations throughout six Ohio counties to serve the public. Both efforts have required complicated behind-the-scenes work to make them successful. The Rushes have therefore relied in part on their brotherly bond, strengthened by a disciplined work ethic handed down by their parents, to help each other and their universities meet the challenges.

Their familial connection, with its natural give-and-take rapport, supportive spirit and just enough sass for that essential level of levity, illustrates how collaboration serves as the backbone of any intricate project. Their connection-driven clinic successes could also be a harbinger for bigger and better partnerships, both internally and externally, that could benefit more people in unforeseen ways, they mused. Building trust, strengthening relationships and forging connections may very well be three key silver linings to a worldwide health crisis that has caused so much devastation, disruption and discord, they said.

Don’t Lose Your Cool

Brothers Michael, David and Ken were raised by parents who took their work seriously and understood its implications for others. Their mom, Teresa Rush, is a retired nurse practitioner who navigated the nuances of differing personalities, needs and quirks among the populace she served. Their dad, Fred Rush, a retired plant controller, is now a Hardin County commissioner.

Michael remembers a time when, after a machine broke at the factory, his father rolled up his sleeves, ran a press for 12 hours and rallied workers so that the business would meet its quota.

“I try to emulate that sort of mindset that we learned from Dad,” Michael said. “If we’re going to ask somebody to do something, we’re going to be there too,” even if it means working seven days a week, which has happened amid COVID-19 testing and vaccinating, he said.

“It’s crazy for me to come full circle, from being a small-town kid from Ada. We always gave Pops a hard time, but when you sit back and think about it, all the things he taught us have translated to both of us and we still do them,” David said while being interviewed recently with Michael at ONU. “There are commonalities in how we operate and run our team, how we empower our team, how we care about our team. Knowing when they need a little bit of a break and if we need to do a little bit extra to get it done. And, not having that ivory tower approach. You’ve got to take care of your people because, I’m not going to sugar coat it, it’s been stressful and it’s been hard,” said David regarding higher education’s pandemic response and clinic operations. “It’s been a lot of weight on everyone’s shoulders to bear that.”

In March, during the early days of the state-sponsored clinics, the brothers talked often, comparing notes about what was working and what wasn’t, who was trying what, and how they could improve upon their delivery.

“There’s no blueprint for this,” Michael said of COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics, which meant that some existing logistics for hosting larger events would serve clinics well while others wouldn’t.

“What are you guys doing? We’re doing that too. Should we try this? Have you tried this? Is anyone else using this?” David said, describing the gist of their conversations. Protocols such as sanitizing and social distancing have overlapped between the universities while tailored approaches are concurrently needed. For instance, while David was contending with necessities such as relocating weight room equipment and setting up gymnastics meets around vaccination clinics, Michael was working on how to serve Logan County’s horse-and-buggy Amish population and scrambling to get his hands on Pfizer or Moderna vaccines when the federal government paused distribution of the Johnson & Johnson brand, which ONU had been exclusively administering when its state clinics began.

“There is always that quick-thinking, problem-solving aspect of this,” David said.

On top of all this, they’ve had their regular jobs to perform, too.

David and Michael said they have occasionally sung their blues, but that they’ve more so relied on each other to maintain a nose-to-the-grindstone, compartmentalized effort. This mindset has helped them perform their additional duties and has served as an example to others. Forget everything else that’s going on in your life when you go to work, find out what’s needed, ask people what they need and get the job done, David said, summarizing their approach.

Coupled with their work ethic and brotherhood is a sense of leadership that looks beyond individualism to a loftier public good.

“It’s nice that with us, there’s never this machismo or this, ‘No, I have to be the better one.’ We’re always trying to help each other. It’s awesome,” said David. “Egos have been set aside.”

“It’s different to hear you sound so professional,” quipped Michael to his younger brother.

Tightrope

Both brothers have had to use their networking, soft skills and other communication resources to partner with various county health departments, media and interdepartmental faculty and staff on this critical and complicated project.

Because COVID-19 mass-vaccination clinics are spaces where strategy, wellness and emotion intersect, they require multiple people with varied skills to make them possible. After all, French performance artist Philippe Petit’s notorious 1974 aerial walk between New York City’s Twin Towers required many individuals working out of view to safely pull off the amazing stunt. David pointed out that elements as diverse and seemingly minor as background music and table placements can have a large impact on morale, mood and efficiency at mass vaccine clinics.

“It’s our university events team, it’s our police department, it’s our parking department, it’s our nursing department,” David explained. “There are a lot of external forces for my job with athletics, but also we now need to make sure these community events run smoothly, where people are excited to come and get the vaccine, where they’re seeing this going on and running well, and that we’re making sure there’s no miscommunication when we’re putting on the clinic.”

The logistics of running each vaccine clinic, David added, particularly the inevitable snags, must be invisible to those being served.

“What you’re describing is a community,” Michael told David. “Nobody notices these things are happening but they’re really what make the events successful. It’s the same story at ONU. Nobody’s job is managing a public health crisis in a pandemic. But everybody has strengths and they have individuals who have talents that can be called upon in unique ways. It’s kind of reimagining people’s roles,” he continued. “Our ingredients in the cookie, if you will, were so different. But that’s the beauty of the whole process, is being able to recognize what ingredients you have and can we bring them together.”

“That’s deep,” David deadpanned. The inevitable conversation then ensued about the merits of different types of cookies.

Pride and Joy

Time away from their own families has added to Michael and David’s job-related challenges, but has reinforced the sense of importance in what they’re helping to achieve.

Michael recalled a conversation he had one evening with his 12-year-old son, Jacob.

“I had to work the next day, on a Saturday. I talked to my oldest in bed that night and apologized to him. We had just bought a smoker and he was so excited about smoking meat the next day,” Michael said. “Jacob said, ‘Dad, don’t apologize. What you’re doing is important.’ And I said, ‘Jake, I hope we’re making a difference.’ He said, ‘Dad, you are. Your team gave all of our teachers their vaccines. You made the school safe for us.’ In that moment, when it was easy for me to feel fatigued and maybe a little down because I knew I’d be working that weekend, I felt so much better. He had said ‘Thanks, Dad, for making my world safer.’ That’s pretty cool. I worked with a smile,” Michael said.

Professionally, Michael said there have been moments where he has noticed the importance of vaccination efforts, too. These moments have also helped him through the hardest occasions.

There was the time that a resident bought the ONU vaccination team several pizzas to thank them for serving his small town where medical care usually requires a long drive away from home.

There was also the time when Michael noticed a pharmacy student who appeared to be upset during one of the clinics. “I walked up to her and asked her what was wrong,” he said. The student relayed that after administering a vaccine to a patient, the patient asked to take a selfie with her. Then, the woman offered an explanation: she had wanted to capture the moment for her family members who had recently lost a loved one to COVID-19.

“With that student, she had this moment where she saw this raw, real impact of what she was doing and found this connection to the practice area of pharmacy,” Michael explained. Other pharmacy and nursing students gaining hands-on experience during this historic vaccination effort have had similar meaningful moments at the clinics. “They’re finding there is real need and value in their service, and that’s giving them that encouragement, that excitement about what we’re doing,” he said.

Lookin’ Out the Window

Pre-pandemic, the so-called “town and gown” panorama, along with internal university operations, had been well-established. The view was predictable. Many things were accomplished in the same ways, and in some less-than-ideal cases there existed a separation between campus and community. But, with innovative collaborating a hallmark of COVID-19 mass vaccination clinics, both Michael and David envision and are hoping for those improved relations, for that different, more vibrant view, to remain. Nearby residents who had never stepped foot on campus have done so to get vaccinated, and the campus has been offering a vital, life-saving community service that has gone well beyond its own “family.” The vaccination effort has put communities in contact with each other in ways like never before, in ways that have created bonds to keep those around them safe.

“I think you’ve started to get that community buy-in,” said David. “A lot of times, you’d need to have that connection to a campus by having a child attend. Now, people might be more inclined to check out events and opportunities. I think that’s the big thing coming out of this: you can see how the pandemic has really tried to weaken and break you down, but we’re like the phoenix rising from the ashes,” he continued. “We’re going to come out of this a lot stronger.”

Michael emphasized the trust-building factor between universities and their communities that has been enhanced thanks to clinics. “That trust is so hard to build and so valuable. It’s really about being a good neighbor,” he said. “The trust that’s established through this pandemic is an amazing silver lining,” he said.

Faculty and staff at both Ohio Northern University and Kent State University have also experienced renewed trust in themselves and their colleagues. Michael noted how pharmacy students and faculty have gained invaluable experiential learning, been able to perform duties that pharmacists had not had years ago, and have served as frequent and exceptional health care information sources. David said he’s now even more confident of his coworkers’ ability to pivot and work successfully with outside entities amid a crisis. The relationship-building could pave the way for collaborative efforts that may have never been conceived pre-pandemic, they said.

“Something that might’ve looked unmanageable before is now a little less so. We know we can do this,” said David. “It opens you up to be more ready to take on bigger and better endeavors” that will shape our new normal, he said.

“We’ve gotten to the point where it’s like a family helping other members of your family. I know that sounds corny, but it’s really kind of true,” said Michael.

And family, both agreed, is what matters most.

“He’s my best friend,” David said of Michael. “I would’ve never imagined that after I chased him with a Nerf gun and knocked the door hinges off, we’d be helping each other years later to do our jobs during a pandemic.”