Can-do doc vaccinating the fragile, one house at a time

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 12, 2021 9:23 AM CT | Published: March 15, 2021 4:00 AM CT

Not many physicians have a pharmacy-grade refrigerator in the passenger seat. Dr. David Weber does.

An electrical transformer converts the 12-volt direct current to alternating current to power the white box — bigger than a breadbox — that rides with him everywhere these days.

It is the symbol of what it takes to be a maverick. When no one was talking about how to vaccinate the hundreds of people in Memphis who are fragile and homebound, Weber was out plowing the ground.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “We had to buy two refrigerators, four digital loggers, fill out a whole bunch of paperwork and show that we had completed the training.”

That and convincing the state Health Department to give him his first 100 doses took six weeks.

Weber and his partner, Dr. Jonathan English, put that batch in arms starting with a long day on Saturday, Feb. 27.

“I did 21 myself,” said Weber, a kind of folk hero to the more than 300 patients in his practice, Housecall Family Medicine, which he runs out of his well-traveled Toyota Camry hybrid.

“I put on 99 miles that day. I started in South Memphis and ended up in Germantown.”

Weber is now on his second shipment, 100 of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Early Wednesday, March 10, he began administering them, one address at a time.

His first appointment was Barbara Alexander, 66, who suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm in 2003.

“She is basically a miracle,” said daughter and caregiver Jennifer Baker. “She’s doing way better than they expected, I will say that.”

From Baker’s home on Elm Grove Circle in Collierville, Weber wove through a few neat blocks and cul-de-sacs to see Mary Rizzo, 96, who lives with daughter Joanne Lindberg off Byhalia Road.

Rizzo doesn’t hear well. In minutes, Weber was running through the vaccine questionnaire with her, in his loud, firm voice that seemed nothing but comic in the context.

“Are you over 18?”

“Are you pregnant? It says right here, I have to ask that question,” he said, a straight-faced foil to the laughter in the room.

The minute Rizzo had her shot, the household advanced another step.

“Oh, it’s wonderful,” Lindberg said. “It’s been over a year since I’ve had her in a car. Now, she wants to go to the dentist.”

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“As far as I know I am the first to give truly homebound patients their shots,” said Weber, well-known in elder care circles in Shelby County.

He is the medical director for Meritan, a large home health care company. He also is a doctor who helps with Coordinated Response to Elder Abuse, a grant-funded program in Shelby County to provide a safety net for vulnerable seniors.

For Weber’s patients and the people who care for them, the year has been 52 weeks of quiet desperation. In some cases, outside caretakers stopped coming because they were sick, quarantined or scared.

For families that care for fragile elders and are still navigating work and everyday life, the recurring nightmare was bringing the virus home.

“Oh yes, I worried,” said Lindberg, who works four days a week outside the home. “I most definitely worried about it.”

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Baker, who also works and who has a child in school in Collierville, has been masking at home for months.

“If you think about it, these are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” says Liz Dayton, associate director of clinical services at Meritan. “If you are homebound, you have caretakers, food is being delivered, people are coming into their homes; that creates a lot of risk factors.

“The most vulnerable are the bed-bound. So many are presenting with comorbidities, which means COVID would be severe and life-threatening. And they are an invisible population, because they are not out there,” Dayton said.

“Not many people know what Dr. Weber sees every day.”

For him, it was essential that somebody advocate for the people who make up his patient base.

“It’s essential they get the shots, and the caregivers get the shots too,” said Weber.

Some of his patients waited hours to get shots in mass drive-thru sites.

“It’s been a disaster. It’s taken some a week to recover,” he said.

The City of Memphis is starting to plan how it will get vaccine to the medically fragile and homeless. Meritan received a $750,000 grant from the Tennessee Association for Home Care to pilot a vaccine program for the homebound in West Tennessee. It begins this week.

By that time, Weber will likely have put on another 100 miles in the house-to-house effort that is the rhythm of his work.

“I know he’s out there driving around for me and my family,” Baker said. “We will be forever grateful for the doctor that literally comes to us.”


David Weber Housecall Family Practice Jennifer Baker Joanne Lindberg Mary Rizzo Jonathan English
Jane Roberts

Jane Roberts

Longtime journalist Jane Roberts is a Minnesotan by birth and a Memphian by choice. She's lived and reported in the city more than two decades. She covers business news and features for The Daily Memphian.