That all changed when the pandemic hit. Like most book clubs, the Fabulous Ladies now meet online; the last time they gathered in person was Feb. 20, 2020, to discuss Michelle Obama’s “Becoming.” But in recent weeks, the Ladies found a new project that gives them good reason to see one another beyond their screens: They are helping to vaccinate their town.
It all started on Dec. 28, when their phones lit up with a message from Keri Rath, one of the club’s founding members and one of the few OB/GYNs in this mountain town of roughly 7,900.
Keri’s husband, Stephen, chief of aerospace medicine of the New Mexico Air National Guard, had gotten a call from the state’s department of health. The department had free vaccine doses but needed help getting them out of vials and into arms. Could the Raths help?
Keri immediately thought of her book club. “They are highly educated, highly motivated, very capable women,” she said in a Zoom call last week. She knew they could get the job done. Also, she told her friends, “Mimosas will be provided.”
No alcohol was necessary to get this band of women — among them a yoga instructor, a lawyer, a teacher, a hotel owner and a veterinarian — to act. In five days, the group had turned Stephen’s private practice, Fusion Wellness, into a pop-up vaccination clinic.
At a time when so many people are struggling to navigate labyrinthine websites and backed-up phone lines to track down a coronavirus vaccine, the Fabulous Ladies Book Club has demonstrated a remarkable efficiency. The clinic opened Jan. 3 and by Jan. 23 had administered more than 2,417 vaccine doses, about 31 percent of the town, according to club members.
How did they do it? It took a lot of time and a lot of texting — one book club member maxed out her phone’s data plan — to delegate, coordinate and administer. Never mind that they had other jobs and kids at home virtual-schooling.
First, they needed to let the public know. They launched a social media campaign and contacted churches and community groups. They set up a hotline for questions and appointments. They coordinated sign-ups with the state’s health department, offering appointments in accordance with the state’s tiered system. Then they had to help people master the registration process — or as book club member Marin Goza put it, serve as “geriatric iPhone assistance liaisons.”
Ruidoso, located about 180 miles southeast of Albuquerque, is known for its racetrack, golf courses, ski resort and casinos (and as the hometown of actor Neil Patrick Harris) — and is a big draw for retirees. The large elderly population in a county that has been particularly hard hit by covid-19 made the vaccination project that much more pressing. The pop-up clinic at Fusion is the only site in its county offering vaccinations beyond the hospital for its health-care workers.
Once the registrations began rolling in, the book-clubbers themselves got vaccinated and trained and then got busy running the clinic. The actual shots were administered by medical personnel. But members of the club had to manage the stock of vaccines. They served as greeters at the front door, handling waivers, temperature checks and ensuring people wore masks, kept their distance and everything was sanitized. Anyone too debilitated to get to the door got curbside service. The women shoveled snow and spread salt on the sidewalks and parking lot. No one fell. But at least one person danced and several cried (with joy).
The Fabulous Ladies each volunteered as many as 50 hours a week on the vaccination effort. They are exhausted but exhilarated.
“After months of hunkering down and feeling helpless, we welcomed a chance to actively help end this nightmare. It has been so rewarding to see the relief on people’s faces,” Goza said. “And as an English teacher, I can say, we read literature to feel connected to others and to build our empathy and envision what the world can be, so it’s a natural extension for us to enact that when opportunities present themselves. And honestly, we missed each other. This was a way for us to reconnect.”
Gillian Epstein Baudo, a yoga instructor and small-business owner, concurred: “Our current book is ‘Untamed,’ by Glennon Doyle, which has been a fortuitous read. Just like Glennon calls in her support network to start a nonprofit to help families separated at the border, Keri sent the SOS and we all responded. That’s what you do for your girls.”
Keri Rath hopes others — in book clubs or not — will see that the pandemic relief effort is not just about putting needles into arms. “Yes, there are those of us who are very skilled at that,” she said. “But there are a lot of steps that a lot of people can do, so maybe don’t be scared away from helping because you can’t do that final piece.”
Liz Smith, a sales operations manager who came to Ruidoso from Silicon Valley, noted how the effort reflected the benefits of small-town life. “One of the endearing things about this community is that you can work to effect change pretty immediately.” The experience reminded her of one of her favorite book club books, “The Day the World Came to Town,” a true story about how the town of Gander, Newfoundland, welcomed airline passengers diverted there on 9/11 that was the basis for the Broadway musical “Come From Away.” “What that town did, it kind of reminds me of what our town would do if the same thing happened.”
Some might say that it already has.
Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.