For the Greater Good

Dec 16, 2020

Xavier alum leads by example, becomes one of first to get COVID vaccine


That's how Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor, or Dr. Val as she's known to her peers, describes the moment she got the new Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.

Briones-Pryor, a 1997 Xavier graduate, was one of the first people in the country to get the vaccine — and the third person in the state of Kentucky — but she will always remember how right before she rolled up her sleeve to get the shot, she received some sobering news.

Another one of her patients had just passed away due to the virus. The 27th to be exact. 

"Yeah, it was very emotional," she said. "It was an elderly woman who came in and on Thursday, she was okay. Then on Friday she got worse, and Saturday was bad."

By Monday, Dec. 14 — at virtually the same time Briones-Pryor got the vaccine — the woman passed away.

"And that's what makes all of this so frightening," said Briones-Pryor, who graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Natural Sciences. "COVID doesn't care who you are, or how old you are. Yes, you might be okay because you're young and healthy, but it affects us all in different ways. And I can't predict how it will affect anyone. That's what keeps me up at night."

Briones-Pryor, the Medical Director for the Hospital Medicine Service Line at UofL Health, has worked in the COVID-19 wings of hospitals in Louisville since March, when she was called on to develop protocols for their ICU teams. 


"But I'm not the kind of leader who asks others to do something I wouldn't do," she said. "I lead by example. So I started working on the COVID patients too, and it's something I've been doing with all of our staff for the past 10 months."

It's those leadership qualities that Briones-Pryor said she honed while at Xavier. 

"I've always been the type of person who wanted to help others, and Xavier just helped me realize that even more," she said. "So when I knew I wanted to become a doctor, I realized I wanted to help the most people I could. That led me here, where I could affect the most change, and I never knew it would be during a pandemic, but here we are."

Last weekend, Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine shipped nationwide to hospitals and health care agencies, and on Dec. 14, the first doses arrived at the University of Louisville Hospital. Kentucky's Governor was even on-hand to watch as the vaccines were administered.

By the end of the week, Briones-Pryor had been featured in newspapers and websites all across the country, as well as on telelvision stations like CNN. "It's been very surprising," she said of the new attention. 

But getting the vaccine is just another way people can look to help others, Briones-Pryor said. She noted how it's very similar to Xavier's mission and values. 

"It's about keeping everyone safe, right?" she says. "We're supposed to look out for others and protect them. So we need to get vaccinated. We need to keep wearing masks. We need to keep social distancing. You're not necessarily doing it for yourself, you're doing it to protect others. And those people are doing it to protect you."

Briones-Pryor said that 70 percent of the world's population must get vaccinated to help create the herd immunity needed to help defeat the disease. In short, everyone must pull together. 

Of course, there's another reason why Briones-Pryor must protect herself. As a wife, and as a mother to a 7-year-old son, she must keep herself safe to help protect her family. 

Kentucky, much like the rest of the country, is dealing with a mounting problem of COVID-19 infections and deaths. According to Kentucky Public Health, more than 2,000 in the state have died from the virus.

Briones-Pryor's hospital received 975 doses of the vaccine last week. But there are 10,000 employees working there, she said, and about 6,000 of those are working with COVID patients. "So it'll be a while before everybody has the vaccine," she said. 

It just reiterates how everyone must continue to pull together for the greater good — again, a very Xavier way of thinking. She said getting the vaccination was much like getting a flu shot. It goes into muscle, which means there could be some soreness in the arm, and it could produce some minor side effects like fatigue or mild fever — but this is good, she says. It means it's working.

The vaccine is supposed to trigger the immue system to react and prepare, so when it does come in contact with the virus, it knows what to do. Only then can we think of getting back to some kind of normal.

"We all have to continue to make the right choices to beat this," she said. "If you want to help others. If you want to go out and socialize again. We all need to continue to help.

"It's just the Xavier way."


Briones-Pryor (far left) and the COVID staff.

Photos courtesy of UofL Health

By Ryan Clark, Xavier Office of Marketing and Communications 


You might also like: