BRISTOL — “How can you mend a broken heart?”
In 1971, this question provided the Bee Gees with their first #1 single in the United States. Now, the same query is at the heart (so to speak) of an ongoing online video series by Father Henry Zinno, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Bristol. The concerns facing Father Zinno are a bit more literal than the question posed by the Brothers Gibb, however.
“Hey, everyone. It’s 6 a.m. on Thursday, April 26, and I’m about to take the first step on the journey to heal my broken heart,” he says in his first video, shot while waiting for his nephew to drive him to Miriam Hospital in Providence. That step, as he goes on to explain, is cardiac catheterization – a preliminary scope of his blood vessels in order to identify any blockages or other anomalies before having his aortic valve replaced.
“It should all go well; this is kind of like the first step to getting things going towards scheduling my surgery,” he said, before signing off with a simple “God bless.”
Over the course of the next 11 videos, viewers have been able to track Father Zinno’s preparation leading up to his July 20 surgery and follow along with his recovery afterwards. He spoke with Rhode Island Catholic during the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on July 17.
“It’s severe aortic stenosis,” Father Zinno explained. “Basically, there’s a valve in my heart that isn’t allowing the blood to flow in and out properly. I had a heart murmur for several years that my doctor had been monitoring, and about three weeks before my first video I started having symptoms of a leaky valve: chest pain, shortness of breath, and constant fatigue.”
Shortly after receiving his diagnosis, Father Zinno began to research the condition online to learn more about what to expect. He found that many of the most helpful resources came from YouTube vlogs by patients describing their recovery journey.
“They gave me a good idea of what the experience would be like, which has made it easier for me to prepare and know what’s ahead of me,” he said.
Father Zinno’s own “Journey to Heal a Broken Heart” is designed to offer future patients an additional benefit — a bit of spiritual consolation to guide them on their own road to recovery.
“A little retreat here in Assisi; just having a day of recollection at the tombs of St. Francis and Blessed Carlo Acutis,” he says in one video, standing before the rustic, sepia-toned stones of Santuario della Spogliazione. “I’m just praying to both of them for serenity, peace and accepting the will of God.”
After confirming that he would need open-heart surgery to address the problem, his local doctor referred him to specialists at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
“They have the best care team in the world for this operation,” said Father Zinno. “It’s known as the Ross Procedure and it’s the most effective treatment for stenosis. Instead of an artificial replacement, it involves transplanting a real valve. Ideally, that will be from a human donor, but they may need to use a pig valve. Once they open me up, they’ll be able to figure out whether or not I’ll be a candidate for the cadaver valve.”
Although the July 20 surgery was successful, unexpected complications meant that surgeons had to use the pig valve. With the operation behind him, Father Zinno is now focused on recovering; at press time, he was still at Mount Sinai, hoping for release during the week of July 25.
“My doctors said to expect about a week of in-patient recovery, and then up to three weeks of recuperation at home afterwards,” he said. “My nephew Kevin is heading to New York with me and will be helping me film from the hospital, and I’ll be having quite a few of my fellow priests visiting during my recovery — and some of them may make cameo appearances in the series.”
Although Father Zinno is uncertain how many of them will appear on his vlog, he mentioned that he was looking forward to potential visits from Father Thomas Ferland (of St. Ambrose Church in Lincoln), Father Stephan Silipigni (of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Little Compton), and Father Robert Marciano (the pastor of St. Kevin Church in Warwick and president of Bishop Hendricken High School).
Back in Bristol, his duties at Our Lady of Mount Carmel will be assumed by a rotating series of substitute celebrants. Among these priests will be Father Phillip Dufour, the assistant pastor of St. Philip Church in Greenville.
“I grew up with Father Zinno here at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and he was a role model for me as I considered my own vocation,” Father Dufour reminisced. “I’ll be coming home for at least a few Masses during the rotation, just until he can get back on his feet. He has a lot of people praying for him: Father Zinno is practically a local institution. For one thing, he’s the best restaurant in Bristol,” he joked, motioning towards a table bearing prizes for the OLMC Festival raffle — which included a dinner personally catered by Father Zinno, as well as one-on-one cooking lessons with the pastor, known for his expertise in the kitchen.
Festival-goers could also take home jars of Father Zinno’s signature marinara sauce, with the culinary cleric himself pictured on the label. Not even impending heart surgery could keep him from the kitchen when it was time to prepare for the state’s oldest Italian festival (dating back to 1899).
“I’ve been making batches of homemade lasagna for the festival for at least the last 15 years,” he said. The pasta sauce is prepared according to his mother’s recipe, which calls for an even blend of sirloin, pork, and veal, with layers of carefully selected Pecorino Romano and Parmesan cheeses. Since the onset of the pandemic, the parish has also offered takeout Italian food on Thursdays throughout the summer. “It’s a lot of work. This year I really had to count on help from the parish volunteers to be able to cook everything we needed.”
Already legendary in Bristol, Father Zinno’s cooking skills attracted a wider audience after the parish began broadcasting cooking lessons during the pandemic as a form of remote community building.
“It started as a little way to make people happy during the lockdown, to bring everyone together for a meal even when we couldn’t do that in person,” he explained. “Then they started catching on outside of the parish, and after The Providence Journal discussed the videos in an article, we started having people tuning in from across the country and even around the world.”
Indeed, part of the reason for his trip to Italy prior to surgery was to speak at the Pontifical North American College about this particular evangelization technique — including an in-house culinary demonstration.
It was this experience coupled with the guidance he had received by watching videos from other patients, that made Father Zinno realize the potential that his recovery vlog could have for reaching a wider audience. Its main focus, however, is to help maintain a close connection with his parishioners while recovering.
“I’m supposed to be out walking for a certain amount of time each day throughout recovery, so I’m sure I’ll run into a few parishioners here and there,” he says. “But the videos will allow me to keep everyone up-to-date about my health, to thank them for their prayers, and share a bit of encouragement with them.”
Among the viewers keeping up with the series will be Barbara Olivieria. Although she now lives in Seekonk, Oliviera grew up as an OLMC parishioner. Prior to the pandemic, she had returned to Bristol for the festival every summer.
“When I heard that Father Zinno was going to be having surgery, I knew I needed to come back to offer a petition for him,” she said. Like many visitors to the festival, she expressed her intention by pinning a rose to the mantle of the Our Lady of Mount Carmel statue used for the traditional feast day procession.
By the end of the celebration, the Virgin’s robes were positively resplendent with flowers — many of which were no doubt tied to similar prayers, interceding for the heart of a pastor who has clearly touched the hearts of his flock.
Anyone interested in following along with Father Zinno’s recovery may find his vlog at https://tinyurl.com/mrz25n99.
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