As the daughter of a doctor (her brother is also a practicing physician), you’d think that Giovanna Breu, our Chicago-based medicine and science correspondent, would want to go into medicine herself. Not so. “I took anatomy and physiology courses at Smith,” says Breu, 53, “and that was enough.”
Still, Giovanna can be found regularly in hospitals, operating rooms and musty medical libraries in search of a story. Her recent report on Christopher Vollan, a child born with painful spina bifida (PEOPLE, May 28), prompted an outpouring of letters. Her first piece for the magazine in 1974 also involved babies and was about a Chicago doctor who delivered them at home, often in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Once Giovanna witnessed a child being born on a kitchen table covered with newspapers. This week she was in Milwaukee, reporting the story of Leslie Lemke, 32, a retarded man who is also a prodigy on the piano (page 26).
When Giovanna went to the Lemke home for the interview, she was greeted by Lemke’s 84-year-old foster mother, May—who was dressed for the occasion in a ball gown. Lemke, who is blind, then made his way to a piano and played an original composition for his guest—a little ditty he called Giovanna From Havana. “I’d known about his story for years,” says Breu. “But the trick was to do him and his foster mother justice.”
Giovanna’s interest in medicine was piqued quite by accident when her son underwent a series of operations to correct a birth defect. During long hours at the hospital, Giovanna discovered that “everyone there had a story to tell.” Thus, her specialty was born.
Breu appreciates the drama of the operating room, but her compassion for her story subjects lasts long after deadline. She is still in touch with Baby Christopher, for instance, and reports he is doing fine and “is just adorable—I’d like to take him home.”
Giovanna lives in Chicago with her writer husband, Joseph, and their children, Christopher, now 16 and fully recovered, and Eugenia, 11. What little spare time she has goes to the Chicago String Ensemble, where she is on the board of directors.
“Being a doctor is hard,” says Giovanna, who should know. “The phone is always ringing, and you never have the weekends free. Come to think of it,” she adds, laughing, “it sounds just like what I’m doing now.”