Mary Gwyn, 64, a woman with short red hair wearing a red winter coat, stands smiling in a grassy area with an office building in the background.

Mary Gwynn’s mother was the fourth of five children born to Irish immigrants, raised by her mother alone after their father died when she was three. The first of her siblings to pursue an education past high school, Gwynn’s mother, Kathleen, trained as a nurse. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt put out a call for nurses to enlist in World War II, she signed up immediately — even appearing in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin as the city’s first wartime volunteer nurse. She had never traveled farther from Philadelphia than visiting relatives in New Jersey until she volunteered to serve, treating injured soldiers in surgical tents in Calcutta.

Growing up, Gwynn and her six siblings would ask, “Mom, what made you do that?” Gwynn recalled. Her answer: “The adventure of helping people.”

Without traveling to India, Gwynn followed in her mother’s footsteps. She’s also a nurse, working in long-term care. What’s more, last year, at the age of 64 and in the middle of the worst pandemic of our lifetimes, she, too, volunteered for the adventure of helping people. She had seen the devastating effects of COVID-19 first-hand in her patients, those who died alone, and those with dementia who couldn’t understand why their families left them there and could not visit. She felt helpless. Then she heard about the Moderna vaccine trial at Penn Medicine.

“I thought, you know what? Instead of just helping one person in your community or someone in your family, by doing this, you can change the world and help millions of people,” Gwynn reflected on her trial participation in early December. At the time, the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were on the precipice of FDA authorization. No one else she knew had yet been vaccinated — she didn’t even know then if she herself had received the vaccine or placebo.

Today, we see the glimmerings of a changed world.

By Mother’s Day, Gwynn could once again hug and kiss her relatives. Here at Penn Medicine, in early June, the number of hospitalized COVID patients dropped lower than that of mid-March 2020 for the first time.

Our local experience driving down infections isn’t yet universal, as the global pandemic rages on, and even in our region there remain persistent gaps in vaccine access and hesitancy that we are working to address.

But for this changed world and the hope we have for its continued expansion, we owe our thanks to vaccination. We owe our thanks to the decades of foundational research at Penn Medicine that made mRNA vaccines possible, to the many scientists who developed that technology into a COVID-19 vaccine, and to the thousands of individuals like Mary Gwynn who volunteered from a simple will to help.

It’s a pattern we can see again and again in all kinds of medical transformations and discoveries. Big, world-altering changes take a combination of discovery, investment, and collaboration

That’s the story of Luke Debevec, an attorney with epilepsy who volunteered to use his time in the hospital with electrodes embedded in his brain to help neuroscientists make more fundamental discoveries. As described in our cover story, the big investment in the new Pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania will take this type of neuroscience discovery to new heights.

And it’s a story we see in the history of the Abramson Cancer Center, as related in the memories shared by its longest-serving director, John H. Glick, MD. Glick is a noteworthy figure for uniting these three principles together — making his own clinical discoveries, inspiring hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropic investment, and bringing together and mentoring generations of brilliant cancer fighters who are all committed to helping others through their own innovation and care for patients.

To Mary, Luke, Dr. Glick, and the thousands who make their own mark in our health system and campus buildings each day — on behalf of all of us living in this changed and medically ever-changing world, thank you.

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