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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Dr. Elizabeth Forrester, left, and Dr. Dawn Richards pose at the Baylor Esoteric and Molecular Laboratory in the Weeks Science Building on the campus of Baylor School on Friday, July 17, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

It was Saturday, March 14, 2020. The day before, Hamilton County had confirmed its first case of COVID-19. By Monday, our world would begin turning inside out.

Dr. Elizabeth Forrester had spent the morning inside the Baylor School lab. As she walked to the lacrosse fields, where her son Jack was playing, all she could think about was this emerging virus.

And our response.

She called her friend and colleague, Dr. Dawn Richards, asking a question that would alter our county forever.

"Do you realize we can do this?" Forrester said.

Inside the Weeks Science Building, where they taught science courses, sat an RT-PCR system. About the size of a dehumidifier, it's used to detect genetic information. Local hospitals didn't have it. Neither did physicians' offices.

But they did.

It meant Forrester, a biochemist, and Richards, a molecular microbiologist, could begin diagnostic testing for COVID-19.

They began ordering supplies. Met with Baylor administrators. Applied for CDC authorization. Ran sample tests. By mid-week, the early morning courier — Greg — delivered the first samples for testing. Everyone else was using out-of-town labs.

"We were the only in-town operation," Richards said. "Just us."

They remember detecting the first COVID-19 positive. (A patient identified as "E-9.") Thousands would follow.

Do you realize we can do this?

On March 25, the county mayor announced a partnership with Baylor. Testing turnaround time went from days to hours.

Over the next 12 months, the coronavirus erupted and disrupted. Yet, Forrester and Richards have been unshakable, navigating red-tape politics, chronic exhaustion, family crises, stay-in-your-lane egoism, all for one unforgettable reason: This is the right thing to do.

"We felt something so deeply, there was nothing going to stop us," Forrester said. "We just wanted to help so desperately."

Dozens of tests became hundreds, thousands. From mid-March to May, they didn't take a day off. In the back of their minds: aging grandparents, relatives with asthma, our most vulnerable, you, me.

"It was a war effort," Richards said. "Instead of a rivet gun, we would hold a Pipettor."

In the early days, Forrester and Richards cleaned the lab, toilets, took out trash; cleaning staff, understandably, wouldn't come near.

They bartered and scrambled for supplies, our supply chain so "severe and intense," it felt like the Wild West, said Richards.

They self-imposed a rule: all tests completed within 24 hours.

They remember calling a local hospital: How can we send you results?

Fax us, the hospital said.

"Fax?" Forrester said, incredulously. (Imagine reams of reports, being faxed, one by one, by two people, with hundreds of tests waiting.)

Twenty-hour days, four-hour nights. They'd leave the lab, stopping for gas or milk: People would walk by, without masks.

"This virus has been like a giant magnifying glass. It put light on fractures we have glossed over, from our own marriage to kids to our health care system to inequalities," Forrester said. "It split us apart. The job was to navigate it and hold it together."

They had help.

While both women have seen the selfishness and incompetency of certain Chattanoogans, they've also seen the professionalism and beautiful generosity.

After the "fax" moment, Forrester called a friend at BlueCross BlueShield; within hours, he'd assembled a team of engineers who built a web portal for test results.

Former student Grace McKenney, home from pre-med at the University of Pennsylvania, was unforgettable in her help.

Dr. Kelly Arnold and her team of Clinica Medicos. Dr. Ron Buchheit at Erlanger Health SystemDr. Clint Smith and Dr. Alyssa Summers at Sewanee-University of the South.

People, strangers, sent cards, emails.

But most of all?

"I'm very proud of her," said Forrester's eighth grade son, Walker. "They are doing their best to help everyone else."

Their kids went days without seeing Mom. Their husbands became single parents. Holidays missed. Vacations interrupted. All for ... us.

Do you realize we can do this?

"The community needs them," said Richards' seventh grade daughter, Maxine. "I'm proud of my mom."

Spring, summer, fall, they tested. This winter, they identified a variant of the virus.

"This is why I got into science," Forrester said. "I know you could have this impact to helps thousands of people ... it was always for the greater good."

Today, they are again asking a question that could change the course of our county.

"What's next?" Richards said. "There is synergy."

What could emerge from a post-pandemic Hamilton County?

"An institute," Forrester said.

Imagine a 21st century Chattanooga bio-medical research program, integrating science with medicine that builds upon the example of Forrester and Richards — as scientists and educators — so that when the next pandemic comes, we're prepared.

"This should be the beginning," Forrester said.

These two women should never be forgotten. As our world began to crack open, they stepped forward, sacrificing more than we will ever know. I hope they never pay for a meal again. Hope they get standing ovations at ballgames, their names recorded in whatever history's being written about this most difficult year.

Do you realize we can do this?

"We were in a position to contribute to the effort. Some people say, 'How did you do it?'," Richards said.

"How could we not?"

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com.

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