Research pharmacists are normally involved with new drugs on the ground level. For David Panning, he got to work on one of the most highly anticipated studies of the past decade. And instead of waiting a few years, it was only a matter of months before the studied COVID-19 drug received approval.

Not only did he watch this process unfold rapidly, he also received the drug. And he was able to use a similarly approved drug to vaccinate his great grandmother-in-law, thanks to the SAVE LIVES Act.

Panning, a research pharmacist with the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System in Cleveland, worked as a part of the Pfizer-BioNTech study team.

Because of his participation, he was most familiar with the vaccine handling instructions. He was the one most trusted to unpack the “small doses of hope” when they arrived in Cleveland Dec. 15.

How to get great-grandmother vaccinated

As vaccination qualifications across the country rolled out, Panning began navigating the difficult task of getting his family vaccinated.

Unpacking the “small doses of hope.”

One particularly special family member he focused on was his wife’s 100-year-old great-grandmother Elsie Dietz. Her first husband, Harold Mull, was killed in action during WWII.

Dietz doesn’t like to leave her house much, according to Panning. She had moved to Ohio during the war for a factory job. She helped support the war effort and found the people to be nice and friendly.

After the tragic loss of her husband, Dietz went on to remarry and had three children. She also had “about four grandchildren, three times as many great-grand-children and three great-great-grandchildren.”

When President Biden signed the SAVE LIVES Act into law, Panning knew he might finally have a chance to get the matriarch of his wife’s family vaccinated.

VA clinic staff and county Veterans’ office pitched in

With help from Jacki Simcox, director of the closest VA clinic, and the Columbiana County Veteran Service Commission, they verified Dietz’s connection to her late husband. They also got her into the system so VA could provide the vaccine.

Panning, his wife and son got in the car one Saturday morning and headed out on their mission to vaccinate Jack’s great-great-grandma.

They stopped at the Canton VA Clinic to pick up Dietz’s dose and took that along with supplies. They had a countdown of two-hours to administer the dose and made it with plenty of time.

“Everyone at VA was super helpful,” Panning said. “Within just a few hours of me reaching out, they got the ball rolling. It was pretty cool to see how quickly and how awesome it was to get this done after all of this time waiting through COVID.”

“VA has really been good to me”

Dietz has gotten used to staying in during the pandemic. But now she is looking forward to being able to have the entire family together again and baking her special peanut butter cookies.

When reflecting on getting the vaccine, she said her late husband would be “really proud” that his military service enabled her to get it through VA.

“VA has really been good to me,” she said. She then commended her great-grandson-in-law on his vaccination technique: “Dave did a good job. He’s a good boy.”

Those who served in the military and have discharge paperwork, regardless of eligibility for VA health care, their spouses, caregivers and CHAMPVA recipients can now get the COVID-19 vaccine through VA thanks to the SAVE LIVES Act. All VA locations across the country is implementing this enhanced eligibility. Sign up to get a COVID-19 vaccine at VA through the site linked here.   

Kristen Parker is chief of the Communications & External Affairs Service for the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System.

Share this story

Published on Apr. 23, 2021

Estimated reading time is 3.2 min.

Views to date: 144


  1. Jaywalking April 28, 2021 at 11:41 pm

    ps, these experimental jabs have been authorized for EUA by the FDA, not approved by the FDA.

  2. Rick Ansel April 28, 2021 at 11:11 pm

    Good morning ma’am. Save lives act is wonderful gift from VA to the veterans. I would like to thank all involved for passing this act. However, I am getting emails from relatives and veteran’s friends living in the Philippines. To date the save lives act haven’t been started in the said country. Is there any way to fast track the inoculation of our veterans abroad? Thank you for your time on reading this email.

    Very respectfully,

  3. Darlene Almeda April 28, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    I love reading stories like this. Thank you to everyone involved, especially Elsie Dietz for allowing her story to be told.

  4. Stephen Hemmert April 28, 2021 at 4:38 pm

    I am a disabled Viet Nam War combat veteran. Wife my and I met while we were in the army. She was in the Women’s Army Corp. She is ineligible to enroll in the Veterans’ Health Care System because my disability compensation puts our family income over the limit. I and many others contacted our Congressional delegations to voice our outrage that not all veterans were entitled to get vaccinated. It was especially hard to comprehend the VA would vaccinate one veteran spouse and not the other veteran spouse when the goal was to keep a veteran from contracting Covid-19. My wife had to struggle for weeks to get an appointment in the civilian market. The thanks goes to the Congressional delegations to confer entitlement to all veterans and family members.

  5. Michael A McCall April 28, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    Wonderful and touching story. God bless her, and the VA representatives. Way to go!

Comments are closed.

More Stories

  • PTSD Bytes: Host Pearl McGee-Vincent discusses PTSD and relationships with Dr. Leslie Morland and Dr. Kayla Knopp, clinical and research psychologists.

  • Clinical simulation training has expanded rapidly and nearly any clinical scenario can be created and taught. Orlando VA trains of hundreds of professionals in their labs.

  • How often do you make things harder than they must or should be? This week's episode of #LiveWholeHealth is a progressive muscle relaxation to reduce stress and lighten your load.