Iknew the sacred relic was right there, inside a brown paper lunch bag that sat on the windowsill for four hours while Dr. Pete Paganussi told me what it all meant. I never asked to see the relic. But every once in a while, as the stories flowed and we worked our way through bagels and lox and egg creams and coffee, I'd steal a glance at the paper bag and feel a shiver of anticipation.
Paganussi is medical director of Inova Emergency Care Center in Fairfax City, where he sees 3,000 patients a year, 62 on a recent Sunday. Once in a great many of those routine cuts and viruses, a doctor must summon his knowledge and instincts to make an artist's decision and improvise with someone's life. When that happens to Paganussi, when he runs through the symptoms and the possibilities, when he climbs the logic trees and still finds no clearing, he sometimes -- this has happened perhaps 15 times in his career -- feels a tingling up his spine and suddenly he blurts, "My God, I know what this is."
That happened with a 16-year-old boy who came in flat-lining. The nurses pumped him with drugs that can bring someone back from the edge, and nothing helped, and finally Paganussi felt the tingle. He ordered up a drug that treats Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a condition caused by an abnormality in the electrical circuitry of the heart. It worked, and that night, the kid was hungry for dinner.
What Pete Paganussi says about the experience is that "that was the year of McGwire and Sosa." I look over at the paper bag.
Paganussi wasn't supposed to be in any ER. All through his life, teachers told him his dream of becoming a physician was a fool's errand. For a long time, it seemed they were right. Rejected by every one of more than 20 medical schools he had applied to, Paganussi moved to Washington. He enrolled in a graduate program at Georgetown that had a stellar record of getting students into med school.
"When you've got somebody in life who's got something to prove, you've got something," he says.
Back in the Bronx, Pete was smart, but not a star performer in school. He was a sports kid, not a book kid. "I grew up baseball, baseball, baseball," he says. "My father worshiped Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams." Paganussi, a lean fellow with a dimpled chin and expressive face -- he looks like a cross between actor Joe Mantegna and former Yankee Joe Pepitone -- grew up a Yankee fan to the core. His hero was Mickey Mantle, and on the fateful night in 1968 when his dad took him to the Catholic Youth Organization father-and-son sports dinner, 10-year-old Peter wanted nothing more than to win the Mantle-autographed ball that would be awarded to one lucky kid.
The speaker that night was retired baseball hero Bobby Thomson, whose ninth-inning home run -- the Shot Heard 'Round the World -- won the pennant for the New York Giants in 1951. Pete had never heard of Thomson; he was focused solely on the Mantle ball. Which he didn't win. But just before the dinner broke up, there was another drawing, for a ball signed by the speaker.
"It meant nothing to me," Paganussi recalls. "He was from before I was born." So of course Peter won the ball. "Big deal, it wasn't Mantle," he remembers thinking. "I looked at the ball and I thought it was a booby prize."
He was called up to shake the ballplayer's meaty hand. And Thomson said, "Kid, do you want to ask me a question?"
Panicked, Pete scanned the room looking for someone to tell him what to say. Nothing. He blurted out the only question that comes to a 10-year-old boy's mind: "How many home runs did you hit altogether, Mr. Thomson?"
And Thomson said: "Just one, kid, just one."
Pete couldn't figure it. Surely a great hitter had to have slammed more than one homer. He checked the records: 264 career home runs.
This made no sense. It plagued the kid. "I was raised to respect my elders and not talk back, so when Bobby Thomson said he'd hit one home run, I took it for inerrant truth." For years, he mulled it. Whenever he hit a rough patch in life, he recalled that quote. Somewhere inside, he knew Thomson's words meant something important, but he couldn't nail it.