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Remembering beloved small town dentist Dr. J. Randall Pearce, who died from COVID

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

As we approach 1 million deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S., we wanted to take a moment to remember someone who died from the virus shortly before vaccines became widely available.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dr. J. Randall or Randy Pearce lived in Morristown, Tenn. He was a dentist so beloved, kids actually held their birthday parties at his office.

KIMBERLY PETERSON: He had patients for over 35 years who were extremely dedicated like family and friends for him.

ESTRIN: His daughter, Kimberly Peterson, says he always knew how to make patients feel at ease, and he was always looking for ways to serve others. That's part of why Dr. Pearce got into forensic odontology, the study of using dental records to identify people after death.

PETERSON: His attitude towards that was, again, service - you know, that he was helping to bring closure to families with a pretty tragic situation. So he was very gifted with that as well.

SHAPIRO: When the 9/11 attacks happened, he went to New York to help identify human remains. When he came back, Kimberly says...

PETERSON: He was just very shaken. He hardly spoke.

SHAPIRO: She still vividly remembers how he smelled.

PETERSON: The plastic and the toxic stuff that was up in the air was in his pores and in his skin and in his hair. And it just was this kind of sickening, sweet, odd smell.

ESTRIN: About a year afterwards, he developed a persistent cough. Like many other 9/11 responders, Pearce was diagnosed with COPD from the dust and debris he breathed in from Ground Zero.

SHAPIRO: So when COVID hit, Pearce knew he was vulnerable. He took extra care to follow all the pandemic rules. But on a brief coffee break at work, he contracted the virus. He was hospitalized shortly thereafter.

ESTRIN: On Christmas Day, Kimberly got the call from the hospital that she had been dreading. In full hazmat gear, she and her family visited for a final goodbye.

PETERSON: He was very swollen, full of fluid. It didn't look like my dad. And when I sat down on his bed - and I remember touching his chest, putting my hand on his chest. And it felt like a waterbed.

SHAPIRO: Pearce had refused a ventilator, saying he wanted it to go to someone else who needed it.

PETERSON: He was, in his final moments, thinking of everyone but himself. (Crying) So, yeah, it was pretty powerful.

ESTRIN: During this last visit, Kimberly reflected on the connection they shared. She's technically his stepdaughter, but they became best friends.

PETERSON: One of the last things we said to each other was that we chose each other. You know, that was the good thing - is that we chose to be father and daughter.

SHAPIRO: J. Randall Pierce died on Christmas Day 2020. He was 69 years old.

ESTRIN: If you'd like us to memorialize a loved one you've lost to COVID-19, find us on Twitter at @NPRATC. There's a pinned tweet at the top of the page.

(SOUNDBITE OF KING CREOSOTE'S "A PRAIRIE TALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.