Dr. Judy Monroe (right), with her daughter Kelley Elle recently at the CDC Foundation in Atlanta. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed
Photo: Contributed

How a song became a double dose of honor and inspiration

There was a moment last year when Dr. Judy Monroe and her daughter Kelley Lubitz sat talking about writing a song that would somehow capture the passion and sheer dedication of those who work to protect the health of people across the globe.

Lubitz, whose stage name is Kelley Elle, had just moved to Los Angeles, working with the likes of acclaimed songwriters Charlie Midnight and Jan Fairchild.

Midnight, you may or may not recall, co-wrote “The Rain Will Fall,” which is on Barbra Streisand’s recently Grammy-nominated album, “Walls.”

They knew the power of music and the arts for helping people connect with complex issues and believed a song could help raise awareness about the myriad health issues we face — the opioid crisis, vaccine hesitancy, and depression.

Kelley, with Jan and Charlie, wrote “Against All Odds” and, as she put it, the song just sat for a while.

That isn’t to say it wasn’t any good. It was better than good. It could make the hair on your neck rise.

Winter turned to spring, then summer, and Monroe, president and CEO of the nonprofit CDC Foundation in Atlanta, boarded a plane to West Africa, where she planned to retrace the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and reconnect with its victims five years earlier. She stopped in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria and Liberia, where she talked with survivors about how they were faring and the impact of investments that had been made by the foundation and its donors.

“It was a very heartfelt trip, hearing all the stories,” Monroe said recently.

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On her last day there, her husband, Dr. Robert Lubitz, called with bad news.

Her mother, Verna Monroe, had passed away. She was 97. That’s significant because when she was born in 1922, the life expectancy for a girl in the U.S. was just 61, but there was another reason, too.

In many ways, Verna Monroe’s life mirrored America’s public health story.

Verna Monroe, the mother of Dr. Judy Monroe, died in July. FAMILY PHOTO
Photo: Family photo

For one, she’d been diagnosed with polio at age 28. After a still birth at age 37, she suffered from postpartum depression, and then much later in her life survived both a massive gastrointestinal bleed and a stroke.

Her daughter remembered hearing stories of iron lungs and the joy in her mother’s voice when she talked about vaccines and the impact they were having on preventing diseases like measles and influenza.

“She got her flu shot every year,” Monroe told me.

Monroe was on a flight headed home later that day when she started to think of ways to honor her mom. It was her mother’s medical journey, after all, that inspired her to become a doctor in the first place.

“No one in the family had ever pursued that much education,” she said.

After graduating from high school in 1971, Monroe headed to Eastern Kentucky University, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and medical technology. After medical school at the University of Maryland, she did a family medicine residency at the University of Cincinnati before setting up practice in the Tennessee mountains.

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She would spend the next four years there caring for the under-served before heading to Indiana University School of Medicine to teach and then to St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis to direct the family medicine residency program there.

In 2005, she was tapped to become Indiana’s state health officer, a position she held until 2010, when she joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a deputy director overseeing the Office of State, Tribal, Local and Territorial Support, the office that supports our nation’s health departments.

In 2016, she was named president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.

Now she wanted to do something that honored her late mother, the woman who made it all possible.

Kelley Elle (center) is with members of the One Production Place team that shot the video for “Against All Odds.” CONTRIBUTED
Photo: Contributed

“Initially I thought I’d just write a story about her life and make a contribution and then I remembered I’d asked Kelley to write the song,” Monroe recalled.

At home, she listened again to “Against All Odds.”

Every time you look around, all that you see is a world that has lost its love and harmony.

And you don’t know how to heal it on your own but if we come together now, we’ll get water from a stone.

Against all odds we can walk through fire.

Against all odds be the change we desire.

Be the thunder and the lightning and the lightning rod.

Raise ourselves up higher against all odds.

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What if Kelley and her writing partners gifted the song to the foundation in Verna Monroe’s memory as a way to highlight the importance of tackling the world’s health issues together and pay tribute to the many people who keep us safe?

As she shared the idea with others in the foundation, the notion of just a song turned into a song and a music video. Monroe’s family covered the cost of the production, and the doctor stepped back into her role as president and CEO.

In November, mother and daughter hosted a pre-release with foundation staff. Tears flowed.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“For me, the message is we need to be a force of nature, but we’re going to overcome these odds together,” Monroe said.

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She pointed to work being done at Emory University, nonprofits like Medshare and the Georgia Global Health Alliance, saying some really creative things are being realized that will help combat illness around the world.

“The song in many ways is telling those stories and speaks to so much of what we’re doing in Georgia as well,” Monroe said. “We’ve got incredibly difficult health issues, but with the innovation and scientific knowledge that we can all bring to these problems collectively, we can combat the growing health challenges we’re facing.

“The power of music and the arts goes beyond what science can do. That’s why we were so privileged Kelley and her team were willing to write it.”

If Monroe was inspired to do this work by her mother, it was Monroe’s efforts to save lives around world that inspired her daughter Kelley to write “Against All Odds” in the first place.

The importance of both their efforts can’t be overstated. The harmony and sheer beauty of the song rings like an anthem.

One we won’t soon forget — or the Monroe women who inspired it.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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