The nurses kept using the same word. The doctors used it, too.
Anne Giardino, the 99-year-old on the 15th floor, was a rock star among the many COVID-19 patients at Stony Brook Hospital in New York, they said. She didn’t need a ventilator. She didn’t need a pep talk. Her lungs were as clear as her mind. She was their oldest patient, and she was their toughest.
“I’m not a crybaby,” she said.
Giardino was admitted April 6, and a week later, once her oxygen level returned to normal, she was moved to a nearby rehab center.
The great surprise came when it was time for her discharge. A nurse wheeled her to the doors, where Giardino stood up and walked out. She held a rainbow-colored sign that said, “I’m 99 and I crushed COVID-19!” and waved it high, eliciting thunderous applause.
A large group of medical professionals had gathered, holding balloons and rainbow signs — “a parade of life,” Giardino’s daughter Camille Stordeur said.
A local reporter covered the story, and soon People magazine published an article. The next day cellphone footage of Giardino’s grand exit aired on “The Today Show.”
“That’s remarkable,” Hoda Kotb said. “That is remarkable.”
The news anchor sensed what Giardino’s family knows well: She is not your average great-grandma.
The 4-foot-9-inch first-generation Italian is fueled by sambuca and her Catholic faith. She doesn’t drink water, doesn’t take naps, doesn’t take any medication other than a sleeping pill to help her shut down at the end of a day.
“I really can’t sit down and do nothing,” Giardino told me. “I feel like I’m wasting my time and other people’s time. I like to be active.”
So she begins her day with prayer, stimulates her mind at every opportunity and serves the other residents at her assisted living center. When Giardino moved in two years ago, she learned how to crochet and promptly made blankets for everyone there. When she gets her hand on a newspaper, she reads it from front to back. She’s currently making her way through the Bible.
Giardino loves being a lector at Mass. Her family presumes she contracted the coronavirus during the Palm Sunday service where she read all parts of the lengthy Gospel.
Giardino raised four children, making sure to provide a Catholic education, and worked in administration at the Long Island Police Department headquarters. She’s known for her homemade manicotti — “light as a feather,” Camille said — and her signature scent, Estee Lauder White Linen.
Life expanded as Giardino aged. She took up theater in her 50s and found a home on the stage.
“Whatever was in me was coming out,” she said.
She performed in more than a dozen community-theater productions, including a memorable role as Yenta, the matchmaker in “Fiddler on the Roof” — a function she fulfilled in real life for her son after he left the seminary by introducing him to his wife.
Giardino earned a college degree at 60. At 92, she traveled to South Africa, where she danced in heels and rode on an elephant.
Her faithfulness and her feistiness are two strands of the same cord. She’s a straight shooter and a novena prayer. Giardino believes in herself and in her God.
“I know that God takes care of everything,” she said.
Her sudden renown has elicited a flurry of phone calls from friends and handwritten letters from strangers. They thank her for giving them hope, for enabling them to imagine longer and more fulfilling lives.
“That makes me feel good,” she said. “I feel I’m accomplishing something.”
But she’s still flabbergasted by the attention.
“What did I do in life to deserve all this excitement?”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota.