When Volunteering is Part of Who You Are
Mark Sorrentino, MD, MS
Mark Sorrentino, MD, MS
Vice President, Center for Pediatric Clinical Development and the Center for Vaccines and Emerging Infectious Diseases

At PRA, a tremendous number of our colleagues volunteer their time, as well as donate supplies and funds, to help support scientific research and good causes. It’s not only a big part of who we are as a company – it’s the very nature of our colleagues.

Our Mark Sorrentinto, VP, The Center for Pediatric Clinical Development, is one of our volunteers who is driven to jump in and help. Here, he tells us some of his reasons why:

We're so proud that Mark was awarded with The President's Volunteer Service Award in recognition of all his efforts in 2018.

You are a volunteer with Team Rubicon—how did you get involved in this organization and why?

I had spent quite a few years as a volunteer with the Komen Foundation acting as the lead medical director on their DC events including the Komen 3 Day event and the Global Race for the Cure. I learned a lot about large event planning and disaster management and mitigation during that time. In addition, I went on a few medical missions to Kingston, Jamaica where I learned more about public health and how to work within a chaotic or non-existent health care system. All of that work attracted me to Team Rubicon’s mission of “providing disaster relief to those affected by natural disasters, be they domestic or international” and doing this by “pairing the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders, medical professionals, and technology solutions.” While I am not a veteran, I saw Team Rubicon as an opportunity to learn and work side by side with the amazing men and women who honorably served in our armed forces.

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What kind of volunteer work have you done with them?

Team Rubicon offers the opportunity to participate in both local events as well as national (and international) deployments such as the response to Hurricane Harvey last year. I have done several local home builds with Habitat for Humanity and worked on some inner-city Baltimore beautification projects in collaboration with The Mission Continues, another veteran-led organization. As the Baltimore City Coordinator, I have had the opportunity to organize a few of these events myself. On a larger scale, I spent eight days in Houston last October with Team Rubicon doing hurricane recovery work.

I am just now back from a long weekend of working with another disaster response organization, The Sheep Dog Impact Assistance team in Wilmington, NC. The Sheep Dogs are another largely veteran group leveraging their training to help in natural disaster areas.

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What motivates you to want to do this kind of volunteer work?

My parents were very active doing community volunteerism during my childhood, and I caught the “bug” at a young age. Through my church youth group, Boy Scouts, and then my high school, there were always opportunities to help others in need. I very quickly realized that I probably benefitted as much or more than those I was helping and that rings true today as well. As we have all seen from the news cycles, there are no lack of people in need of help, here and all over the world. As I learn more from each time in the field, I feel compelled to help and to share this knowledge.

You are heading to places where people have been hit hard—in some cases traumatized by their experience. It must be very emotional—how do you handle that?

I have found the most important thing is to actively listen to the victims of the disasters. They want to talk and to tell you about their experience. Everyone I have met is so incredibly gracious for the assistance. For some, we are the first people they have seen since the disaster. I spent five years as a pediatric critical care nurse and more than 10 years in the PICU as an attending physician, so I am not new to the emotional trauma a disaster brings.

Letting myself feel that emotion rather than running from it has always made it a little easier. There are no easy things to say to someone as you remove them from their home due to mold or standing water, or a lack of electricity, or taking every last belonging they ever had out to the curb, now considered “trash.” Treating these people with compassion, giving a smile, a hug, a meal, or some water and hearing from them how grateful they are for the help eases my own emotional journey. We also take the time every night to debrief as a group and to share the stories from the day. We are stronger as a collective group of responders than we could be as individuals.

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What is most memorable of your volunteer work to date?

Two things really stand out for me. One was a flag ceremony we did for a veteran in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Team Rubicon has a process of cleaning American flags we recover during the muck out of someone’s home. Many of these flags have significance for these veterans and I was present when we presented a restored flag to the veteran. Often, they aren’t aware the flag was salvaged. In this case we had stripped their rural home that they had built themselves to the exterior four walls and when the homeowner, the veteran, saw we had saved his flag, he nearly collapsed to his knees. After losing nearly everything, to see his reaction to get a piece of is personal history back was truly remarkable and inspirational.

Another noteworthy event happened in Jamaica. We were working in the slums of Kingston at an orphanage. This facility is run by non-medical personnel and there are many very medically challenged and complex children in their care. I noticed that nearly all of the children had severe mouth sores. When I enquired about their mouth care regimen, I was taken over to a bucket of toothbrushes. The staff was using any toothbrush they grabbed from the bucket and the cleaning of the toothbrushes was only done with plain water. While it was obvious that a one toothbrush per child solution would not work in this facility, I was able to teach them how to make up a cleaning solution with a small amount of bleach in order to kill the bacteria that they were passing from child to child. It was an instance where I felt a little knowledge went a long way to helping with the daily care and wellbeing of these most fragile children.

How do you think your volunteerism ties into your work at PRA?

I have spent my career working with society’s most vulnerable populations, children. My work at PRA is no different. It has been well described that about 70% of therapeutic agents used in children have not been approved or labeled for use in that population. Myself, as well as my colleagues within the PRA Center for Pediatric Clinical Development are dedicated to ensuring new medications and devices are studied and ultimately gain a labeled indication for use in children. My sense of duty to those who can’t help themselves has always been a key piece of who I am.

You head up our Center for Pediatric Clinical Development—what are your aspirations for the Center and for improving pediatric clinical development?

The end goal is to see every appropriate therapeutic/device studied in children. We are constantly looking at new and innovative ways to bring that goal to fruition. Whether that is evaluating new trial designs in order to optimize trial enrollment or ways to educate and include children in the clinical trials process. We hope to become the Industry’s go-to for pediatric knowledge.

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