One of the last times Dr. Rebecca Ann Miles, 68, saw her primary care physician, Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, he told her to stop putting off getting her eyes checked, handed her a business card and recommended she call the listed doctor.
“What’s her name?” Miles asked.
“It’s on the card,” Rabinowitz said.
“… I can’t read it,” Miles responded.
Rabinowitz laughed. His laugh is high-pitched and unusual, Miles said. It’s one of those laughs that people cannot help but join in on. She misses it.
In October, Rabinowitz was one of 11 people fatally shot at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In memory of his life, Miles, a long-distance swimmer who moved to St. Augustine from Pittsburgh a year ago, dedicated her recent bronze medal-winning performance in the 500-yard freestyle race of the Senior Olympic Games in Clearwater to the physician.
Miles, who trained for the age 65 to 69 competition at the Ponte Vedra YMCA, has won medals at other games before. She has competed in the Senior Games 11 times. This year, however, was her first in Florida and held different meaning following the events of October. Before she jumped into the pool on race day, she said under her breath, “This is for you Jerry.”
A real life lost
Rabinowitz was known for his bowtie, wire glasses, small stature and affable nature. He hung pictures of cat comics in his patient room. The comics were mostly from “The Far Side,” which he placed on the walls to give his patients something to look at — especially when they were involved in a less than comfortable procedure. Both the doctor and his wife loved cats.
Rabinowitz was shot while praying. He was killed because Robert Gregory Bowers thought the way he and the others at the synagogue were praying was wrong.
In many ways, Pittsburgh and the people closest to the mass shooting are still recovering. It’s hard to believe that a hate crime could occur in their city or on their street, Miles said.
“Fred Rogers’ wife lived three blocks from there,” Miles said about the site of the shooting. “I mean this is literally Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.”
For 30 years, Miles went to see Rabinowitz every time she had an ache or rash from the pool. He always encouraged her training, telling her at one of their last visits to, “just keep swimming.”
“He was just so sincere,” Miles said. “He was a very kind man, but very direct. He would always go over your blood work with you or if you gained and lost weight. If he wanted you to see a specialist and you hadn’t done it yet — like he was always on me about getting my eyes checked — he would prompt you on these things. But he was never judgmental. He wasn't somebody who would say, ‘Don’t come back until (you’ve) seen the eye doctor or lost ten pounds.’ He was very, 'Let’s work at this together.' That was his attitude.”
Rabinowitz was also known for being the doctor to go to when the HIV epidemic broke out. According to an article posted by CNN, Rabinowitz showed compassionate care when many doctors turned patients away.
“People forget this was a real guy; he saw real patients, he had a real life,” Miles said. “He wasn’t just a name in the paper.”
Swimming with purpose
While thinking about the devastation, Miles started training. In the past, she had used coaches and trainers to get her up to speed and keep her driven. This year, she reflected on her shock and grief and decided to do something with it. Miles decided to incorporate Rabinowitz into her routine.
She wanted to make his passion for wellness and commitment to medicine her motivation. Many days, instead of stopping at a point when she was tired, she thought of his face and pushed on. Miles started hitting her old time of 9:26, the time she won Maryland with three years ago. She pushed harder because when she wanted to get out of the pool, there was, “little Jerry in my head.”
“I know it sounds kind of treacly, you know, to just say you’re honoring someone,” Miles said. “But it really was. It was something to say, ‘You know Jerry, we talked about this. I’m doing this. And this is for you.’”
When Miles got in the pool on Sunday, Dec. 2 in Clearwater, she reflected on Rabinowitz, accepted that she had trained hard and decided she would just do her best. She felt her doctor would have been pleased.
“I mean really, the first 150 you think you're dying,” Miles joked. “You really think, okay, I’m going to die in the water. This is just how I’m going to end up … The watery grave. I really got a second wind, (however), in the second half, but I didn’t think it was enough.”
When Miles finally came up, her husband told her she was in the 8s. Meaning, she shaved an entire 30 seconds off her time. In swimming the 500, 30 seconds might as well be a lifetime.
“I’m thinking, where did that time come from?” she asked. “I mean, yes, I trained for it … But, seriously, where did that time come from?”
Miles completed her fastest time ever this year with 8:51. She won bronze and credits her doctor and personal trainer.
“I mean, what do you do with that pain?” she asked. “It can just be like an undertow like you're in the ocean and swimming and it takes you down ... or you can do something with it. You make yourself stronger.”
When Miles first heard the news that Rabinowitz was one of the 11 dead, she said she didn’t know how to handle her feelings. With a hate crime, she said, it seems helpless to try to combat the situation. She said she wanted to try to make him back into the person he was before the news and trial and everything surrounding it. She also said she didn’t want to just simply write a check and move on. So, instead, she did exactly what he last told her to do. She kept swimming.
“That was Jerry,” Miles said. “He genuinely wanted people to be healthy. That was his legacy. His life mattered.”