Early every morning, as they prepare for another lifesaving marathon, staff and volunteers at MaineHealth’s Scarborough Downs COVID-19 vaccination clinic pause for a few moments while a manager reads a handful of sticky notes.

“You guys are making history!” one might say.

“Thank you for making a scary time feel safer,” says another.

“Bravo Zulu,” observes yet another, referencing the naval semaphore flag signal for “Well Done.”

They are among the hundreds, if not thousands, of messages affixed to the “gratitude wall” near the clinic’s exit. For those who have just received a vaccination, the colorful notes are a chance to revel in the moment and thank those who made it possible.

And for those who made it possible, the wall is an ever-growing testament to their tenacity.

“I’m amazed at how many people take the time to do it,” Cassandra Grantham, one of the clinic’s managers, said Friday afternoon as a steady stream of vaccine recipients paused to add their thanks and praise.

She added, “I swear to God, it’s better than Disney World here. This is the happiest place on Earth.”

As Maine bids good riddance to the darkest of winters and embarks this weekend on a long-awaited spring, it’s worth noting just how far we’ve come since this time last year.

Back then, the newly pronounced pandemic paralyzed us with fear and uncertainty. The talk was mostly of protection and prevention – and when we did dare discuss a vaccine, it was always with the caveat that its development and rollout could take … 18 months? Two years? Did anyone even know?

Look at us now. More than a quarter of Maine residents have received at least their first shot. Our vaccine inventories are on the rise. And on Friday, Gov. Janet Mills once again tweaked the state’s eligibility rules to include anyone over 50 starting Tuesday and anyone over 16 as of April 19.

That’s a lot to be grateful for.

“Walking into this space gives me hope for humanity,” wrote one person leaving the Scarborough Downs clinic. “The kindness and support is uplifting and hopeful. Let’s crush this.”

Another person, signing with the initials “AH,” composed a “Haiku thanks”:

“a sea of safety
people floating on a raft
in a world of caring”

Grantham, who stepped away from her job as MaineHealth’s director of child health programs to help run the clinic, said the wall began almost as an afterthought – patients started asking if they could leave a note of thanks, so a few sticky notepads were left on a table just beyond the clinic’s observation area.

Back then, a mural of a jockey in a sulky driving a horse dominated the wall space – a throwback to the days when Scarborough Downs drew crowds for entirely different reasons. Now, the jockey and horse are fast disappearing beneath a wave of thanks from people who came here not to watch a race, but to win one.

“It’s just really exploded,” Grantham said, surveying the sea of color.

After ordering more sticky notes – some are now heart-shaped, while others come coated with glitter – Grantham and other managers began reading a select few to their fellow workers each morning, powerful antidotes to the fatigue that comes with administering what could soon be 2,000 vaccinations per day. Grantham’s favorite is a note that says, “Love you, Cassie. (Heart), Mom.”

“It’s from my mom,” Grantham said, beaming. “She’s actually the real hero. She’s the one who cooks me meals at night when I get home at 8:30 or 9 and I’m exhausted.”

“Heroes” is a word many note writers use to describe the clinicians who administer the shots, the National Guard soldiers who check people in, the observation room monitors – one does a little dance for every person who just got a second shot. Others call them “rock stars.” Words like “God bless” and “angels” reflect a belief by more than a few that all of this was truly heaven-sent.

The vast majority of the notes consist of only a few words, maybe a drawing like the one of a heart pierced not by an arrow, but by a needle and syringe. But occasionally, someone gets hold of a full sheet of paper and elaborates on where this all fits in the bigger scheme of things.

Carol Santerre Martinelli had just such a story to tell.

“In 1959, I was awarded a scholarship from Scarborough Downs, which was used to enter the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing,” she wrote. “That same fall, my parents were planning to go out and eat at the Sportsman’s Grill in Portland. On their way, they stopped at Scarborough Downs and purchased a daily double ticket using my age ‘1’ and ‘8.’ While at the restaurant, they found out on 6:00 news that they won the daily double. They were jumping up and down, very excited.”

The winnings paid for the rest of her nursing education, she wrote. Now here she was, feeling lucky all over again: “62 years later, I find myself returning to Scarborough Downs to receive my second dose of the Covid vaccine. Thank you to all who volunteered.”

The Dalai Lama once said, “When you practice gratefulness, there is a sense of respect for others.”

With this changing of the seasons, that respect goes to the scientists who developed the vaccines, the brave souls who signed up for the trials, the construction crews who almost overnight turned an old, retired clubhouse into a high-capacity clinic, and now the small army of health workers and volunteers who will run this and other clinics throughout Maine until the COVID-19 pandemic is finally tamed.

We will forever mourn those we’ve lost. We’ll comfort and pray for those who still are, and still will be, infected. And going forward, those of us who grasp  the miracle of the vaccines can only hope that those who don’t will see the light while there is still time.

But we are here, one year later, in a vastly better place. Where once we lamented the loss of our community, we now flock to an old racetrack in the name of herd immunity.

Welcome to another spring. There’s gratitude in the air.

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