Last Wednesday, at exactly 11:10 am, I watched a pharmacist place a bandaid on my 16-year-old daughter’s arm. He stuck it neatly beneath the bunched up sleeve of her bulky sweater.
“There you go, sweetie,” he said gently. “Next time wear a t-shirt.” He smiled beneath his mask, deposited the needle in a red bin, and turned to the next teenager waiting to be stuck with the Pfizer vaccine.
Dr. Neal Smoller is a holistic pharmacist. He owns Village Apothecary, an independent pharmacy in Woodstock, NY. For the past four months, Smoller has been on a mission to vaccinate every person in Woodstock and the surrounding towns in Ulster County, starting with the most vulnerable people.
Smoller appealed directly to the CDC to obtain a supply of vaccines. He then organized a volunteer army of over 150 people. They hit the ground running. His first vaccine clinic was on January 13th at the Woodstock Community Center.
In late February, Smoller and his team traveled to churches, community centers, and high schools, educating people about the vaccine and immunizing Ulster County’s elderly population.
By April, they’d secured a space in an abandoned Best Buy store in Kingston, NY, just 7 miles from my home. That’s where I got my second Moderna vaccine and my daughter got her first Pfizer shot.
Smoller got the word out via Facebook and email and with the help of his volunteers. He urged eligible people to sign up on his vaccination website which he stuffed with information about vaccine eligibility, instructions for volunteering, FAQs, and the latest CDC guidelines.
People who join Smoller’s email list receive notifications of pop-up sites throughout Ulster County. His tenacity does not allow for a single dose to go unused. He keeps a standby list of people ready to show up at short notice for a shot, which is how my husband and I got our first Moderna vaccine fully four months before either of us expected to.
March 5th, 2021 was the final day of a 3-day vaccine clinic that Smoller conducted in several Ulster County towns. That evening Smoller had a surplus of vaccines about to expire. He’d rallied restaurant owners to send their staff to his clinic where he and his team vaccinated most of the restaurant workers in Woodstock, but he still had doses that needed arms.
At that point, I was only peripherally aware of Smoller and Village Apothecary. I’d attempted to volunteer at one of his pop-up clinics earlier that week, hoping to get a vaccine if any were left over at the end of the evening. But they’d had more than enough volunteers that day, so I’d been turned away. I was disappointed, but not too worried.
By then, New York was rapidly expanding vaccine eligibility and lowering the minimum age on a weekly basis. I also qualified for a vaccine due to some health issues, so I figured I’d get one by June, latest.
It ended up being much sooner than that.
My friend Daisy, a friend of Smoller’s and a member of his volunteer army, texted me at 6 pm the evening of March 5th. “They need arms. Go now,” she’d written. I had just finished making my dinner and it was on the counter, waiting to be eaten.
I texted her back, “It’s a 45-minute drive to Woodstock. Should I eat first?”
“Go. Now. Bring your husband.”
I covered my dinner in plastic wrap, stuck it in the fridge, and we raced to the Woodstock Community Center, arriving just as the pop-up vaccine clinic was winding down.
“Arms out!” Dr. Smoller ordered as we walked in the door. We got the last two shots in that particular three-day clinic right as they were about to expire. They’d run out of vaccine cards by then, so I didn’t even know what shot I’d gotten until the next day when I thought to ask Daisy. “Moderna,” she confirmed. “Congratulations.”
I was supposed to get the second dose on April 2nd, but I wrote the date down wrong in my calendar. Thanks to that blunder, my husband and I missed our follow-up appointments in Woodstock.
Instead, we went to the vacant Best-Buy-turned-vaccine-clinic on April 6th, where Smoller was conducting yet another pop-up clinic. The place was filled with high schoolers and young adults. My husband and I got our second doses in under ten minutes. By then, the vaccine army had it down to a science.
I tried to convey my thanks from behind my mask — to Smoller and to the volunteers who kept things moving at a friendly but rapid pace. That was, of course, an impossible task. We were masked faces and bare arms, then we were outside, marveling at the fact that it was done. We were fully immunized.
The very next day, my 16-year-old daughter got her first Pfizer vaccine at that same abandoned Best Buy.
“Next time wear a t-shirt,” Smoller had said to her. And I stood there, speechless, wondering how I could possibly communicate my gratitude for this gift.
What does it mean to be protected from a virus that has killed over a half million Americans? Six months from now, will we remember that people like Dr. Smoller moved mountains to keep us all safe?
In her daily newsletter, Letters From an American, historian Heather Cox Richardson wrote about America’s collective amnesia about the 1918 flu pandemic. “The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people across the world, including about 675,000 people in the United States. And yet, until recently, it has been elusive in our popular memory.”
As the masks come off, the stores and stadiums fill up, and the nonstop bustle of everyday life returns, will the COVID-19 pandemic fade away too? Will we forget that so many Americans — over half a million — didn’t survive to see another summer?
I know I won’t forget. I owe that much to Dr. Smoller and to every single person that volunteered their time and energy to vaccinate as many people as possible so that we’d all be safe.
It’s a rallying cry. It’s a lifeline. It’s proof that when there’s light in the darkness, it’s because there are people like Dr. Smoller willing to hold the lanterns high.
I’m sure that getting the vaccine means something unique to everyone who got (or will soon get) vaccinated by Dr. Neal Smoller and his volunteer army. To go back to work or school, to not be afraid anymore, to watch a movie in an actual theater, to celebrate a birthday with your family — it’s impossible to convey the import and significance of being immunized.
But I’m going to try.
I lost my 15-year-old daughter, Ana, to cancer in March 2017. I spent the next few years attempting to make sense out of my life. My family was broken. We were shattered. But we reassembled the pieces as best we could — the three of us — and rebuilt our family around the hole that Ana left.
We were doing okay in February 2020 when the rumble of COVID-19 became a roar. Then the storm hit and we shut ourselves inside where we huddled together as people began dying. No one at the Federal level seemed to care.
It was a year of isolation and deep worry. My daughter turned 16 alone in this house with just the two of us to celebrate with her.
Death was a daily topic in the news. We retreated into our isolation, growing more anxious and depressed with each terrible month. We bore the heavy burden of fear through the spring, summer, fall and winter of 2020. When Trump lost, we counted down the days to Biden’s inaugeration. We could not send my daughter back to school or risk seeing people. The possibility of getting sick, of losing someone, was too high.
We are a family who understands that death can take anyone, even the people you love most in the world. Especially the people you love most in the world.
What did Dr. Neal Smoller give us? Another summer. Another autumn. Another chance to rebuild our lives after cancer ripped a hole in our family and the pandemic threatened to finish us off.
I haven’t seen my 74-year-old parents since November 2019. Neal Smoller gave them back to me.
My daughter hasn’t seen her friends in months, hasn’t been to school, hasn’t had anything to look forward to in over a year. Neal Smoller gave that back to her.
I know he didn’t do it alone. His volunteer army made it possible. This is also a gift that Dr. Smoller gave to us — the return of community. He brought Ulster County together. He motivated people to help each other. He proved that kindness and compassion can still prevail in a world that often feels cruel.
Neal Smoller held the lantern up high. Neal Smoller lit the way.
So, yes, I will remember this year of heartache and what it cost so many of us. I will also remember the lightkeepers like Dr. Smoller who helped guide us back to safety. I owe him — and his volunteer army — at least that much. I’ll definitely remind my daughter to wear a t-shirt next time.