Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Portrait in a pandemic June 20, 2020

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Minnesota Prairie Roots photo, May 15, 2020.


EVERY TIME I AM IN PUBLIC, I am reminded that we are living during a global pandemic. But even before I leave the house, I do a mental check list. Got my mask? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Hands washed? Check.

I admit, even after several months of this new way of living, pulling two elastic bands over my ears to hold a cloth face mask in place feels unnatural. Uncomfortable. Odd. But it’s necessary to protect others and to reduce my risk.

And then I need to remember to use hand sanitizer. Upon leaving a store. Before I re-enter my vehicle. Back home, no grocery bags set on counters. Hands washed. I’m learning.

A month ago, while attending the May Faribault Car Cruise Night, I took the above portrait of a man walking along Central Avenue in the heart of our downtown. I appreciate the story this image tells. It represents, to me, the portrait of a pandemic.

In my city of some 24,000, there have been 653 cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, June 19. That’s a fairly high number for our population, in my opinion. County-wide, we’ve had 743 positives, according to information on the Rice County Public Health Services web page. Our state prison accounts for 26 percent of those cases. We have the sixth highest incidence rate of the virus in Minnesota. Four county residents have died.

This virus knows no boundaries. Rural-ness offers no protection. We are all, by the fact that we are human, part of this pandemic. Part of the story. Part of history. Portraits in a pandemic.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


My story: Insights learned from whooping cough April 16, 2020


The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode, my aunt who died of highly-contagious whooping cough at age nine months. A great aunt, Ida, also died of pertussis at the same age. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.



In the summer of 2005, when I was 48, I came down with what I initially thought was a bad cold. Turns out the horrific sore throat, followed by the equally horrific cough, was actually whooping cough. After three doctor’s visits and a misdiagnosis of bronchitis, I was correctly diagnosed with pertussis, the first case my physician had ever seen in his longtime career.

When he informed me that pertussis is also known as the 100-day cough, he was not joking. I was racked by uncontrollable fits of coughing from around July Fourth until well after Labor Day.

For me, the summer of 2005 was spent languishing on the couch, feeling like absolute crap, exhausted from lack of sleep (ever try sleeping when you are constantly coughing), utterly worn down, unable to barely function.

The worst, and I mean absolute worst, moment came when I awoke one night gasping for air, my windpipe narrowed. In retrospect, that asthmatic type attack warranted a 911 call and I now consider myself fortunate to have survived. Yes, it was that bad and necessitated another visit to the doctor for a regiment of the inflammation reducing steroid prednisone and an inhaler.

I don’t know why I experienced a particularly bad case of whooping cough. Typically the young and elderly are most harshly affected. Unvaccinated infants can even die.

Nor do I know how I got a disease I thought had vanished decades ago and which claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris in 1935 at nine months old. My doctor speculated that I could have been exposed waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. I’ll never know.



Why do I share this experience, which I first blogged about in 2010? I reblog this because it’s a very real example of how easily I became infected with a highly-contagious bacterial disease simply by being out and about in public. To this day, I have no idea where I picked up whooping cough and then passed it along to two family members. Since then, I’ve learned that the vaccine for pertussis, a serious respiratory tract infection, wears off and re-vaccination is needed.

When I consider how ill I became from whooping cough at age 48, I can only guess how the much more serious COVID-19 might affect me 15 years later at age 63. I recognize the two differ—one is bacterial, the other viral, for example, with many other differences. But some similarities.

Having contracted pertussis via community spread illustrates and underscores the importance of social distancing, of staying at home, of recognizing how quickly and easily the highly-contagious and potentially deadly COVID-19 virus can spread.



I shop at the grocery store weekly because, you know, I eat. I’ve seen too many people who don’t seem to care about social distancing. I can tell right away. They hog the aisle, don’t move over, come too close. In all fairness, many people are being safe, careful and respectful and I appreciate that.

While en route to the grocery store or to a park (about the only places I go now days), I’ve observed groups of obviously unrelated people chatting, even leaning into car windows. No social distancing. I’ve seen landscapers clustered around the back of a pick-up truck.

I recognize that we live in a free country and that people will make choices that are unwise, unsafe and not in the best interests of their health. But when those decisions affect the health of the general public, it’s different. We are all aware that COVID-19 is highly-contagious, even deadly. Every single one of us ought to care because our lives, and the lives of those we love, of our friends, our neighbors and, yes, even the woman in the grocery store, depend on us caring. Whether we live in New York or Minnesota, this virus does not distinguish between rural and urban. No one is immune.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


PS to my whooping cough post November 7, 2010

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DELORIS EDNA EMILIE BODE died on May 10, 1935, from pertussis (whooping cough), pneumonia and a gangrene-type infection of the mouth.

The second-born daughter of Lawrence and Josephine Bode, she was only nine months and nine days old.

She was my aunt.

The gravestone of Deloris Edna Emilie Bode in the Immanuel Lutheran Cemetery, rural Courtland.

Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling




An update on whooping cough in Minnesota November 6, 2010

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WHENEVER I HEAR the words “whooping cough,” I listen. Last night a Twin Cities television station reported on the increased number of pertussis cases in Minnesota. Most recent statistics on the Minnesota Department of Health website show 1,000 reported cases as of October 21.

When I last checked those state stats in mid-August, and wrote about whooping cough on this blog, that number stood at 395, as of July 16.

The surge in this highly-contagious disease during the past several months is likely related to the start of school. A statement by the MDH seems to support that: “Minnesota is experiencing a peak period of pertussis that started back in the fall of 2008. Pertussis disease normally peaks every three to five years. Clusters continue to occur in the elementary school setting.”

I take a personal interest in whooping cough because I contracted the disease in the summer of 2005. If you don’t take pertussis seriously, you ought to. It’s called the 100-day cough, and it’s not misnamed, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Yes, you can die from the disease. Infants and senior citizens are particularly vulnerable.

Yes, vaccines exist to prevent whooping cough. But don’t mistakenly think you are protected because you were vaccinated as a child. Pre-teens need boosters. Adults can get a vaccine targeted especially for them.

If you want to know how many whooping cough cases have been reported to the MDH this year or in previous years in any Minnesota county, click here. As you would expect, the more densely-populated counties have reported more cases.

In Rice County, where I live, nine cases have been reported so far this year, holding steady with the previous two years of seven and nine cases.

But neighboring Steele County has seen a significant increase with cases rising from one and two the past two years to 37 thus far in 2010.

Similarly Mille Lacs County has shown a notable increase in numbers, from none in 2008, to six in 2009 and 29 this year.

I don’t know the reason for the rising numbers in those counties. But I do know that the disease spreads quickly and easily. My husband and one of my daughters caught whooping cough from me although their cases were not nearly as severe. Antibiotics administered in the early stage of the illness can reduce the severity.

I’ll leave you with this final note. When I asked my doctor five years ago where I could possibly have contracted pertussis, he told me, “You could have gotten it standing in the check-out line at the grocery store.”

That, my friends, is food for thought.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A closer look at whooping cough, including my story August 17, 2010

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FIVE YEARS AGO, I earned the distinction of becoming my physician’s first adult whooping cough patient in his 30-plus year career.

I still remember that day when I perched on the examining table, so exhausted from my coughing fits and a subsequent lack of sleep that I could barely function. Five weeks earlier my doctor had diagnosed bronchitis. When I wasn’t getting any better, I returned and he gave me the same diagnosis. But now, on this third visit with my condition steadily deteriorating, I wanted answers.

Then I coughed.

For my doctor, that was a profound moment. He didn’t even hesitate. “I think you have whooping cough,” he blurted, then soon left the room to consult with another physician.

I don’t recall exactly how I responded, but I remember thinking that whooping cough couldn’t possibly exist in 2005.

How very wrong I was about that assumption. Today, five years after I struggled with this debilitating illness that invaded my lungs and throat, causing persistent coughing fits, a severe sore throat, asthmatic type attacks and a resulting inability to sleep, the disease continues to infect, and even kill.

California, if trends continue, is expecting more pertussis (whooping cough) cases in 2010 than it’s seen in 50-plus years, according to the California Department of Public Health. As of August 10, those numbers stood at 2,774 reported cases, including seven deaths among infants. The cases represent a seven-fold increase from the 395 reported during the same period in 2009.

Naturally, I wondered how Minnesota compares. According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Health, as of July 16, there had been 395 cases reported. The report notes that the state is near the end of an outbreak that began in 2008.

In my home county, Rice, three cases of the disease have been recorded in 2010. The majority of infections are, as I would expect, in the more heavily-populated counties of Hennepin (75 cases), Wright (60), Dakota (52) and Ramsey (40).

But statistics really don’t matter if you’re the one with whooping cough. I remember the follow-up phone call from my physician who delivered the news that pertussis is known as “the 100-day cough.” He wasn’t kidding.

And he wasn’t kidding that he really couldn’t do anything for me. The disease would have to run its course—for me from early July until after Labor Day—and my body would need to heal on its own. Antibiotics help only early on in either preventing whooping cough or diminishing the severity of a case. The pertussis bacteria die off naturally after three weeks of coughing.

My entire family received a regiment of antibiotics with my husband and my second daughter both developing whooping cough, albeit much milder than mine.

Whooping cough, I can undeniably tell you, should be taken seriously. If you are an adult, or a teen, and haven’t been vaccinated since childhood, listen up. By age 10 or 12, you are no longer protected by that childhood vaccine. I was 48 years old when I developed pertussis. I’ll never know how I contracted the disease, but it’s highly-contagious. Infants are especially vulnerable.

Ironically, in the same year I became ill, new vaccines for adolescents and adults were approved. With widespread immunization, pertussis can become an illness of the past.

Within my own family, whooping cough claimed the life of my Aunt Deloris. On May 10, 1935, Deloris Edna Emilie Bode, second-born daughter of Lawrence and Josephine, died of pertussis, pneumonia and a gangrene-type infection of the mouth at the age of nine months and nine days.

Whenever I think of Deloris, I nearly weep at the thought of that beautiful baby girl wracked with uncontrollable coughing fits, struggling to breathe, fighting to live. I will feel forever linked to her by whooping cough, the 100-day cough, and today a preventable disease.

(The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has designated August as National Immunization Awareness Month.)

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling