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.