Mother on a mission: Tri-Cities woman working with healthcare providers to better treat autistic patients during pandemic

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TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – A local mother is on a mission to help healthcare facilities across the region when it comes to treating patients with autism.

Sharon McCray’s son, Charlie, has autism and recently contracted COVID-19. For a year and a half, Charlie and the McCray family sheltered in place, only recently taking a mini-vacation to Gatlinburg. Despite social distancing and mask-wearing the entire time, Charlie and his father contracted COVID.

Her son being high-risk and contracting the virus was definitely a concern to McCray, but thankfully he made it through. However, while his ordeal with the virus has passed, his treatment for it has left a lasting impression.

McCray said while he was treated, she feels more training when it comes to treating patients with autism could be a great benefit.

“I do not discredit these health care professionals of wanting to provide the very best care for my son, they just didn’t know how. Ultimately he got the treatment, so thank you he did get the treatment he needed. But unfortunately he is still suffering from post-traumatic stress from the experience,” said McCray.

For almost three decades, she has learned so much about autism and has become a great advocate for people with autism, specifically her son. She said it’s hard to treat because it’s so different for everyone and misunderstood from time to time.

“With autism, you may know an autistic person, but no one autistic person is the same. They’re all unique, they’re all different in their needs, and the way that they perceive the world,” she said.

Following her son’s experience and seeing the lasting impression it made on him, McCray decided to reach out to area healthcare providers regarding further training on the topic of treating patients with autism.

In just a few weeks, McCray has been able to hold conferences with leaders in healthcare across the region, including officials with Sullivan County.

After hearing McCray’s story, they thought additional training could be beneficial and are planning to hold a joint training with McCray later this year.

Sullivan County EMS will be participating and EMS Chief Jim Perry said he’s surprised they haven’t done a training like this before.

“I love the idea. I think it’s going to be great and beneficial for our EMTs and paramedics but most of all it’s going to be beneficial to our patients our there and our interactions and communications with them,” said Chief Perry.

Perry said they started discussing the additional training this week. He said typically his crew does about 10 to 12 in-service trainings a year as well as CERT classes but he sees any additional training as a benefit to his teams and patients.

“The more we know and the better education and the more information we have, the better it is in the long run for the patient,” he said.

Sharon McCray also said she has been in discussion with Ballad Health and is thrilled to hear they are furthering training when it comes to developmental disabilities within their recently launched Ballad Health Niswonger Children’s Network.

Dr. Patricia Chambers said the network further helps guarantee the best practices in pediatrics and that her team is and will continue to train and work towards providing the best care for all patients, especially those with developmental disabilities such as autism.

She said proper care during youth can make a lasting impression and better prepare autistic patients for further care and treatment down the road without it being a traumatizing experience.

“These children can be very traumatized by something that could be mundane to another child. So having a staff that is educated and sensitive to the needs of kids with sensory differences is so important in making sure we deliver that care in a compassionate and kind way that allows the child to thrive,” said VP & Chief Medical Officer Ballad Health/Niswonger, Dr. Patricia Chambers.

While the training with Sullivan County won’t take place until the Fall, McCray said she will continue working on setting up trainings and conversations with other healthcare leaders in the region. She hopes to help kids and young adults just like her son.

“Anyone like my son, who needed emergency medical care, could very safely go to a facility and be able to have professionals there who recognize the disability and are able to help facilitate the appropriate setting and the appropriate protocol when it comes to giving the very best patient experience,” said McCray.

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