Listening to the secrets in my heart

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 18, 2021.

The triumphant note, in bold black letters, greeted me at dawn from the kitchen counter: “I did it!” The pronoun needed no explanation. I knew “it” meant my wife, Deb, had scored us COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

We’d been trying for two weeks. Or, more accurately, Deb had been trying.

“I hit the refresh button for like the millionth time at 3 in the morning,” she said over coffee. “I was about to give up.”

Our slots were back to back at a CVS in nearby North Kingstown the following week. Nice work, Deb.

The word “vaccination” derives from the Latin “vaccinus,” which means “from cows.” In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner coined the term for the technique he used to prevent smallpox, a disease that once killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually. 

Jenner theorized that injecting people with cowpox, a similar but milder virus, would fortify a patient’s immune system against the smallpox scourge. He was right. In the 1800s, the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur applied the term “vaccine” to all such inoculations.

When I was a boy, “vaccination” was not in my vocabulary, but “needle” sure was. That’s what delivered the battery of shots administered by my kindly pediatrician, Dr. Frank Giunta, to protect me from measles, mumps, polio, and more. My early fear of needles – trypanophobia – was intense, but I conquered it by age 6 or 7.

“Look how brave you are!” Dr. Giunta said the first time I held back my tears.

His voice was soothing, and the sleeves of his crisp white Oxford shirt were neatly folded at his elbows. When he placed his stethoscope on my bare chest, he said “Hello,” lowering his head and closing his eyes as he listened to the secrets my heart revealed to his ears alone.

Physicians face a daunting task: to keep us healthy or, at the very least, alive. The pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable humans are to infectious disease. We all have expiration dates, uncertain yet inevitable, and we do our best to stave them off.

When Deb and I arrived at CVS, the mood at the vaccination station in the back of the store was festive. COVID-19 may have forced people to practice social distancing, but it also has given us common ground. Deb’s story of 3-in-the-morning appointment-making was echoed by two others.

A woman in scrubs called out my name, looking up from her tablet.

I took a seat and rolled up my sleeve. As the nurse rubbed my left arm with alcohol, I noticed I was sitting opposite a greeting card display. I felt a pinch as I scanned the “Get Well” messages.

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Want one?” she asked, holding up a red chewy candy.

“Sure,” I said. It only seemed right to celebrate.

We were halfway home – to our house, of course, but also to putting COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror. Our second shots were scheduled for mid-April.

As I chewed the candy like a kid, I thought of Dr. Giunta. If he could listen to my heart now, what would he hear? A strong, consistent beat, like Ringo Starr in his Beatles prime? Or, God help me, the drumming mayhem of The Who’s Keith Moon? 

Or perhaps the good doctor would hear something else altogether. Maybe my heart would tell him how much I love Deb and my three children. How lucky I am to have my brothers. How playing fetch with my dog, Rhody, is a simple and profound joy.

Amid a receding pandemic, maybe my heart would tell Dr. Giunta how grateful I am for everyday blessings.

15 Comments

Oh John. My Italian husband,and love of my life passed away last week at Tufts Medical Center hoping to get a heart transplant. I am profoundly sad, but forever grateful for the time we had together, however short it was. He was a renaissance man and introduced me to the Italian way of life. Now it will live on through occasional posts from you. You can go to Nardolillo funeral home and read Christopher Fascione.

Love Hard.

Leigh

Fantastic as always… thanks John! A walk down memory lane, and
a reminder of how much we have to be grateful for in these challenging times.

Ernie Santoro

Amen. Hopefully we can find something good in all this pandemic..A renewal of simple appreciation would be a good one.
Thanks John.

John! How familiar is your post! I got appointments for Jim and myself by logging into the CVS website at 4:00am (hey, Deb). North Kingstown, too, and I stared at the greeting cards as well! Glad you’ve got your shots – better days ahead 🤞🏼

Greetings Fellow Vaccinatee,

I had my second Physer in mid-April at the Providence Place CVS, and now I walk through springtime certain that, while I too will not get out alive (no one does — although I used to think Sinatra might pull it off), COVID-19 will not push me through you-know-what’s door.

Thanks for the opportunity to acknowledge Dr. Maurice Kay, the pediatrician who earned my mother’s trust and, eventually, my own.

Best to you and Rhody!

John, as usual, an excellent piece. Thanks for sharing. BB and Gpa

John, classy and spot-on as ever. After searching and searching (and being canceled by LifeSpan within hours of my first appointment) I managed to garner my shot(s) at Kent Hospital. Now the family is whole and we’re hoping to once again follow our hearts along the wooded trails of New England. Here’s to new friendships blooming with old friends. Peace to you and Deb.

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