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Mother and daughter making coronavirus pandemic family affair

Catherine Parker, director of laboratory operations at Vista Clinical Diagnostics in Danville, can rattle off facts about the complex testing process for the coronavirus (COVID-19) at the drop of a hat …

L-R: Catherine Parker, director of laboratory operations at Vista Clinical Diagnostics in Danville, and her daughter, Pittsylvania County Stem Academy Teacher Olivia McGraw, perform coronavirus testing procedures together at Vista Clinical earlier last week. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

Catherine Parker, director of laboratory operations at Vista Clinical Diagnostics in Danville, can rattle off facts about the complex testing process for the coronavirus (COVID-19) at the drop of a hat.

Throw her a few questions about popular culture, things start getting a little fuzzier.

“I don’t really know movies, I don’t know who sings what, I know a little bit about Bon Jovi and 80s rock but I grew up in Floyd County on a dairy farm and both of my parents were teachers. There weren’t exactly many opportunities for entertainment,” Parker said laughing.

Parker still couldn’t be blamed for her lack of pop culture knowledge. She’s spent the last two decades of her life performing tests for blood chemistry, hematology, microbiology and coagulation — a job that often averages 60 hours a week during normal times.

Her daughter, fellow lab technician and Pittsylvania County STEM Academy science teacher Olivia McCraw, can verify.

“All she does is work so pop culture references or pretty much anything that’s not in this lab is going to right over her head,” she added, joining her mother in laughter.

However, things have changed over the last few months.

McCraw has had plenty of opportunities to update her mom’s pop culture knowledge as she, along with Pittsylvania County STEM Academy science teacher and king of pop culture David Potts, have been working together on the frontlines of the coronavirus at Vista Clinical, performing in-house testing for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Virginia and North Carolina.

“They’ve really been keeping me updated,” Parker said laughing. “I ask some stupid questions sometimes but they’re filling me in.”

It’s actually been an effective coping mechanism when things start getting stressful near the end of a 12–14-hour day.

“We spend a lot of time explaining my jokes or if coach [Potts], king of pop culture tells a joke, we explain it to mom. It’s been a fun way to deal with things,” McCraw said.

L-R: Parker prepares a label for a coronavirus sample last week inside Vista Clinical while McCraw watches. The two have been working together since the spring, doing in-house coronavirus testing for nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in Virginia and North Carolina. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

McCraw and Parker’s adventure started in the spring when lab technicians at Vista Clinical, still running their normal tests for non-coronavirus related illnesses, found themselves a little overwhelmed.

Knowing the importance of their work and the daunting task that laid ahead, Parker reached out to McCraw for an assist, knowing her daughter was qualified for the position and would require little training.

“I knew if I asked her to help, it would be okay,” Parker said. “She wasn’t going to do more than she knew to do but she’s one of the smartest people I know and that she would pick it up really fast and I just needed somebody I could depend on. I knew she was going to ask questions when she needed to and that I could rely on her.”

Luckily for Parker, her need came right around the time the county school system announced the switch to virtual learning, meaning McCraw had a few extra hours to spare each day and would be more than willing to help.

Turns out, Parker was right as McCraw had been waiting a while for her mom to ask.

“I actually had been trying to talk her into hiring me for a really long time, just for summer, weekends, whenever she needed help because I could see the longer she’d been there, the more she taking on and rightfully so because she’s a wonderful manager,” McCraw said. “But I think she might have been worried because she might have thought we wouldn’t work well together.”

“But when COVID happened and they took us out of school and I was doing virtual, she said, ‘Hey, I could really use some help right now,’ and I had worked in labs before in high school and college so I thought, ‘Why not?’ Let’s go learn it. Let’s go do it.’”

L-R: McCraw and Parker watch as a coronavirus sample is being amplified to detect any virus RNA in the sample. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

Perform a quick Google search, and you’ll find hundreds of sites providing no less than five reasons why family and business don’t mix.

McCraw and Parker haven’t been to those sites. In fact, judging by their interactions, Harry Nilsson’s “Best Friend,” switching the father-son theme to mother-daughter of course, could be the two’s theme song if a sitcom was ever created about their experiences.

In fact, it’s not the first time the two have helped each other.

“She really is my best friend,” Parker said. “If I need help a work, if I need help in life, technology, if my computer needs help, if I need help writing a paper for school, I turn to her. I went back to finish my B.S. a few years ago and she was at Virginia Tech and I sent my papers to my 19-year-old daughter to help edit them.”

Famed talk-show host Oprah Winfrey once said on her show that being a mother was the hardest job. Even though stand-up comedian Bill Burr once jokingly questioned Winfrey’s statement, even he would be quick to admit that it truly is one of the most difficult jobs, requiring a great deal of sacrifice and selflessness.

Something Parker, according to McCraw, knows all-too well.

“Mom’s worked two jobs pretty much my whole life,” McCraw said. “It’s been so that when me and my brother, [Will], were little could do sports and other things. I did every expensive sport. I had a horse. That’s a family thing and mom made sure I was able to do that and that was probably the most awesome thing growing up.”

If there was a sitcom ever made on their experiences, they would have a few exotic locations they traveled to together to shoot at.

Last year, McCraw talked her mom — a self-confessed homebody — into taking a trip with her to Jamaica. The year before that, the two took a five-day trip to London, England. McCraw pushing her mom to get out of her comfort zone is something only a best friend would do.

“[Olivia] likes to travel and that’s really cool because I’m a home body,” Parker said. “I like my nice secure little world but it was cool to get to see the world through her eyes.”

McCraw joked, “Yeah, but with everything that’s been happening recently, I don’t think I’ll ever talk her into leaving again.”

It’s that bond that’s been getting them through these stressful times.

There are numerous frustrations Parker has to deal with at work during normal times. Throw in a pandemic and every shortage of testing kits, missed shipments and mechanical problem becomes amplified.

Luckily for Parker, she’s got her best friend working alongside her.

“She helps with frustration,” Parker said. “She’s taken the brunt of my frustration for the last few months because she’s my best friend and takes the good with the bad.”

McCraw’s secret?

“Well, normally it’s, ‘Okay, mom. We’ve got this. You can leave the lab now. Go home and get some sleep,” McCraw said chuckling. “Or it’s, ‘Okay, stop. Tell me what’s wrong. What’s frustrating you?’ Or, ‘Okay, get up. Let me do this.’ If I can talk her through the process of how I’m going to make it better and how that will help her for days to come, she’s like, ‘Fine, do it.’ But if I’m like, ‘Mom, you’ve got to leave,’ she’s just going to go crazy and not leave.”

If that doesn’t work?

“Space is our best solution,” McCraw said, recalling an incident that happened last week that verified her point.

Parker had asked McCraw for some help with a technological issue, a request McCraw was happy to perform. However, she — self admittedly — didn’t tune in all the way to her mom’s directions, leaving the task halfway fulfilled and Parker a bit frustrated.

When McCraw approached her mom with the solution, Parker was quick to point out she hadn’t finished the task.

“I didn’t really listen to her that well the first time, like I heard the first part of my directions but not the last part of them or I didn’t process it on her end so when I got done I was like, ‘Mom, this is so great,’ and she was like, ‘You didn’t do what I asked you to do. You didn’t finish the request,” McCraw recalled laughing.

“She had been working for at least 12 hours and wasn’t in the greatest mood and I was like, ‘Mom, why are you acting like this? You know I’ll fix it.”

McCraw fixed the problem but things still weren’t working exactly the way Parker needed them to and she showed her frustration.

“At that point I told her, ‘Okay, I’m going to go home now,’ and I came back the next day and everything was fine,” McCraw said.

Parker’s mother died when she was 16-years-old and she didn’t have the best relationship with her father, leaving somewhat of a gap in her childhood. However, her experience left an indelible mark on Parker, one she never lost after having children herself.

“My mother died when I was 16 so I didn’t have a good relationship with a parent growing up and I was determined and will always be determined to never put myself in that situation with my children, probably to a fault,” Parker said. “I want to be involved in everything. We clash moreover, ‘[Olivia], I want you to do date this person.’ I think I really try to overcompensate.”

“I’m trying to be something for them I never had and so when we don’t get along or clash or something, it seems so insignificant. There’s the initial clash, but in the end, it’s all so insignificant. I could never have asked for this time with [Olivia]. It’s something we’ll always have which is always cool.”

McCraw chimed in, joking, “That’s good because you’re not getting rid of me. I like the extra pay too much.”

Given McCraw and Parker’s closeness and similarities, combined with the fact they would be working long hours in close quarters, might have led their family members to worry a bit.

However, that wasn’t the case.

“I’m not exactly sure about what my stepdad thinks about it, but I’m pretty sure he just expected it,” McCraw said. “And I think my actual dad is like, ‘Of course you’re working in a lab.’ I think he really just expects these things from me and just rolls with it.”

“There have been a couple of times where he’s asked how we’re getting along but aside from that, I think everybody’s been like, ‘It’s about time.’”

For Parker, the experience has allowed her the opportunity to watch McCraw grow as not only a lab technician or scientist, but as her daughter as well.

“Okay, now I’m probably going to cry,” Parker said. “It means so much to me because I didn’t have that experience growing up and all of these things I’ve always wanted to share with my kids that I will never take for granted. I’ve been very lucky. She’s the bomb.”

Parker’s son, Will, grew up wanting to emulate his father in becoming a state trooper. Watching this left Parker feeling a bit jealous. However, she doesn’t have to worry about that anymore.

“When [Will] was growing up, he always wanted to be like his dad,” Parker said. “His dad is a state trooper and he’s always been set on becoming just like his dad so I was always a little jealous of that. So, know I have this with [Olivia] and I’m like, ‘Yes!’”

It’s an opportunity not lost on McCraw as well.

“I appreciate the relationship I have with her so much because many people don’t,” she said. “I know so many people at my age who get to do their passion and their other passion with their mom so I do appreciate the time and it couldn’t have come at a better time. If I wasn’t here, I would never see her because she’s always at the lab.”

L-R: McCraw and Parker take a moment to let some levity in while running coronavirus testing samples last week. Photo: Davin Wilson/River City Sports.

Now that the two are a couple of months into their adventure, they have garnered enough lessons to pass on to others who might find themselves in their situation — coronavirus related or not.

“For me, it’s 100 percent taking a step back and put yourself in their shoes,” McCraw said. “What has she had to deal with today? What frustrations has she had? What’s on her mind? Why is she responding this way? Just stepping back and really evaluating it and putting yourself in her shoes and helping her deal with things.”

“Not snapping back because we are so close and know each other so well. But it’s really helped me become a better human. So I guess my real advice would be realize the opportunity you have and don’t take it for granted.”

Not surprisingly, Parker agreed.

“Take advantage of any time you have together and don’t take it for granted. Make the best of it. Memories are good,” she said.

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