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As the pandemic raged, Kathy Gilsinan found ‘The Helpers’

Journalist Kathy Gilsinan
Jeannine Crider
Journalist Kathy Gilsinan

The title of Kathy Gilsinan’s new book comes from an oft-quoted suggestion by Fred Rogers — when you see scary things on the news, you can feel better by looking for “the helpers.” Said the man known to generations of children as Mr. Rogers, “You will always find people who are helping.”

Surveying America’s two-year battle with COVID-19, many of us see mistake after mistake. A contributing writer at the Atlantic who lives in St. Louis, Gilsinan doesn’t excuse those errors.

But her focus in “The Helpers: Profiles from the Front Lines of the Pandemic” is on the ordinary people who did extraordinary things. The 35-year-old public health enthusiast who helped Moderna invent the mRNA vaccine in real time. The retired firefighter who left the safety of Colorado to lend a hand in the Bronx as the disease ravaged working-class communities. A culinary teacher in Kentucky who kept people employed, and others fed, as the nation shut down. We lived through these times, and now Gilsinan helps us see the heroics all around us. It makes for a surprisingly suspenseful story.

For Gilsinan, a journalist based in St. Louis, finding the helpers was less of a challenge than narrowing down which ones to profile — and then getting them to find the time to talk to her, over and over again, during one of the busiest and most stressful times of their lives. Take Hamilton Bennett — as Gilsinan describes her, “this millennial literally saving the world” at Moderna.

“She carved an hour out of most of her Sundays to just tell me about how she was running this massive vaccine program,” Gilsinan recalled on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. That’s even though she barely had time to see her own husband.

Listen to Kathy Gilsinan on St. Louis on the Air

Why did Bennett do it? Gilsinan joked that, like many journalists, she’s a “pushy broad.” But beyond that, she suggested: “I like to think she wanted to take the time out to pause and reflect on the historic nature of what she was doing. Because otherwise, there was no time, and otherwise, it would kind of be forgotten.”

In trying to capture these stories even as they were unfolding, Gilsinan found herself dealing with a slippery subject. Like many of us, she assumed the advent of vaccines would end the pandemic much more quickly than it did. And so she found herself writing an epilogue even as people continued to die, and continue to die today.

She found some context in Camus, reading his classic novel “The Plague” like so many people during this pandemic.

She quotes his character Rieux’s observation that the thing we learn in a time of pestilence is that “there is more to admire in men than to despise.”

“And I thought that that was such a great, modest conclusion, that it wasn't like, ‘Oh, people are generally good, or people are generally bad,’ or we learn that human nature is fundamentally X,” she said. “It's that no, people are a mix, and sometimes they screw up, but in general, they're pretty much trying to do the right thing. Which I think is something we forget, especially in the context of this pandemic.”

In Gilsinan’s final pages, she acknowledges the challenge of beating back a pandemic — but also the heroism of her protagonists, who still try.

“In place of victory is ongoing struggle, never finished, never enough,” she writes. “You can never save enough people, you can never make or distribute a vaccine fast enough or convince enough people to take it, you can never feed all of the hungry. But there are people who look those odds in the eye and try anyway.”

Related Event

What: Left Bank Books and STLPR host Kathy Gilsinan, with Sarah Fentem
When: 7 p.m. March 29
Where: St. Louis Public Radio Community Room, 3651 Olive St., St. Louis, MO 63108

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.