Not Throwing Away Her Shot: Dr. Sherri Young named 2022 Woman of Achievement

On July 1, 2019, Sherri Young, DO, assumed her new position as health officer and executive director of West Virginia’s Kanawha-Charleston Health Department – the first woman ever to serve in the role. Within five months on the job, she would be facing a once-in-a-generation global health crisis – helping guide a testing and vaccination effort that would serve as a model for the rest of the country.

COVID-19 reached the U.S. in mid-January 2020. Over the course of the next couple of months, cases spread like wildfire across the country. West Virginians watched as, slowly but surely, every state confirmed cases and waited with dread for the deadly virus to arrive.

The path that led Young to the leadership position at the Kanawha-Health Department began with a young girl, growing up in in Mullens, WV, an only child to her mother and physician father. One of the first people Young remembered drawing inspiration from was her grandmother, who took impeccable care of her quadriplegic grandfather for more than 24 years. Seeing her family rally around her grandfather served as the impetus for her fascination with both helping others and the practice of medicine.

“[Being a physician] is something I’ve known I wanted to do since I was five,” Young said. She loved flipping through her father’s medical schoolbooks and learning about surgeries and different areas of medicine.

After completing her undergraduate degree at West Virginia University, she pursued a degree in speech pathology and audiology, an area in which she knew she’d be able to work closely with people. In 2003, she graduated from the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine and went on to complete her family medicine residency at CAMC. After working at Holzer in South Charleston for a time, Young accepted the newly-created position of Immunization Officer, while also serving as medical director for the University of Charleston Physician Assistant Program. She would go on to be elected president of the West Virginia Academy of Family Physicians and president of the State Medical Association.

Her impressive career on the rise, Young’s family then experienced a tragic turn of events. On January 12, 2018, Young, her husband and young daughter narrowly escaped a house explosion caused by an 800-gallon propane tank that rolled into their house. Due to faulty installation and recently-thawed ground, the tank shifted and rolled down a hill on their property, coming to rest at the edge of the house in the middle of the night. Smelling propane, Young woke up and woke her husband. After searching the house, they discovered the propane tank and the family quickly evacuated. Barely seven minutes after leaving the house, the propane tank blew, issuing a 40-foot explosion into the air. “And it was all gone,” Young said.

Following the explosion, Young wrote a book, Blessed: A Family’s Struggle to Rise from the Ashes, about her experience and rebuilding her life after losing her home and everything in it. The autobiography recounts how Young and her family dealt with the aftermath and tried to piece their lives back together through the support of their family, friends and their faith.

This experience gave Young a deep appreciation for not only the first responders who helped and protected her family, but also a deeper empathy for the homeless. Having escaped with only the clothes on their backs, they had nowhere to sleep and didn’t know from where their next meal was coming. “We don’t want to judge what got people to that point, and I had great support and tools and family and friends, but not everyone does.”

Shortly after the explosion, Young accepted the position of director at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. “I saw that there was a need and a gap there and a lot of things seemed siloed and very negative in the media. Something in my gut just said, ‘I want to fix it and mend those bridges and put the community back together.’”

Five months later, on March 17, West Virginia confirmed its first case of COVID-19 – the last state to join the battle against the global pandemic. While many of us waited, feeling powerless, Dr. Young and other state leaders had been preparing – knowing all too well what was coming.

“We had to start from the ground up. We formed Health Command, which was a community response – county commission, the City of Charleston, the ambulance authority, the division of homeland security, the sheriff’s office, the WV National Guard, the CPD, the fire departments – everybody had to get on the same page because we were fighting the same fight, but nobody knew how to fight it yet.”

From the beginning, Young and her colleagues faced an uphill, and uncharted, path. “In the beginning, it took us seven hours just to figure out how to transport one homeless patient who was potentially COVID positive from General Hospital to a Red Roof Inn without exposing anyone because we didn’t have access to the masks and other PPE we needed,” Young said.

“We had to make some decisions that were really tough and really unpopular,” Young said. Among those controversial decisions was mass testing nursing homes, which was wildly unpopular, but is now CDC policy.

“We were making it up as we went along, learning from the successes and failures of other states,” Young said. “We were building the plane as we flew it.”

Once testing became more widely available, the health department noticed how low testing numbers were compared to the population of Kanawha County. “When we started being able to test in mass, we went out to the communities, so the communities got used to us. They didn’t have to come to the health department to get our services. We made it available and easy to access for them.”

“We have 911 square miles in Kanawha County, and I swear I’ve set foot in every one them at some point, as has our team,” Young said.

By December 2020, two vaccines had received emergency use authorization, allowing for distribution to health care workers and other essential employees. Shortly thereafter, Governor Justice announced vaccines were available for those aged 80 and older. The evening following that announcement, the health department saw huge crowds lining up outside their building and quickly realized they were going to need a much larger facility – and a much larger supply of vaccine.

Young and her team conceived a plan to utilize the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center as a vaccine distribution center. On January 1, they came up with the floor plan to quickly – and safely – move people in and out, and within two days, they had everything in place to begin vaccinating the community.