Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Saving lives via blood &/or vaccination July 20, 2021

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My husband, Randy, and granddaughter, Isabelle, watch the sun set over Horseshoe Lake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

THE CF CARD in my Canon DSLR EOS 20-D brims with photos from a week at the lake cabin. The storyteller in me holds stories waiting to be written. But, right now, I have something more important to share and that is a public service announcement followed by a subtle nudge (or more accurately, a shove).

First, consider donating blood through the American Red Cross. There’s a severe shortage. That’s the message we’ve heard for weeks. In June, after a year’s pause, I resumed donating. I just didn’t feel comfortable giving during the worst of the pandemic. Yes, I realize health and safety measures were being taken to protect donors, but…I didn’t want a stranger close to me for any length of time indoors.

My blood donation card. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Now that I’ve been fully-vaccinated for several months, I felt comfortable donating blood again. It’s an easy process which requires screening for eligibility and about an hour of my time. On June 16, I lay on a table at the Eagle’s Club in Faribault, blood flowing from my vein into a bag. While donating, I never really think about how my blood could save a life. I just do it.

The Red Cross occasionally emails donors with general details about their blood donation destination. I’ve found that particularly informative and connective in a deeply personal way. This time my blood “after first ensuring that local needs were met,” went to Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. To whom, I have no idea. But simply knowing I helped a patient at a Philadelphia hospital means something to me. I now hold a personal connection to someone nearly 1,200 miles away from my southern Minnesota home.

Not only did I glean that bit of info from the Red Cross, but I also learned that I’ve developed COVID-19 antibodies as a reaction to the Pfizer vaccine, just as I expected. It’s reassuring to read those results from tests done on my blood donation. The Red Cross sometimes, but not always, tests for those antibodies. And, yes, tests do distinguish between antibodies developed from having the virus or from vaccination.

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo, May 15, 2020. Photo taken in downtown Faribault, Minnesota, of a local resident wearing a face mask to protect against COVID-19.

That leads to my next plea. Please, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated against COVID-19. Like donating blood, vaccination can save lives—yours or that of a family member, friend or even a stranger. It’s such a simple thing to do. My heart breaks when I hear of family members, friends or others who refuse to get vaccinated for whatever reason. I don’t want to lose any of them to a potentially serious and deadly viral infection that can be prevented. The unvaccinated are putting themselves at risk, especially with the highly-contagious and more serious Delta variant now spreading rapidly in the US and elsewhere. Health officials are now terming COVID-19 a virus of the unvaccinated.

Yesterday the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with a recommendation that all children over age two wear masks when returning to school this fall, regardless of vaccination status. The same applies to school staff. That makes sense given many students are not yet vaccine eligible and determining who has, or hasn’t been, vaccinated would prove difficult. I want my 5-year-old granddaughter, who starts kindergarten, as protected as possible. She means the world to me.

So, yes, when people spout untruths about vaccinations and how they don’t need them and are not at high risk and so-and-so who had COVID didn’t get sick and it’s all about personal choice, I think of my grandchildren. And I think of my cousin who missed five weeks of work after contracting the virus and who is only now back working half-days. I think of my friend who lost her step dad first, and then her mom a month later to COVID. I think of my friend whose sister died of the virus. I think of my husband’s cousin, who lost her spouse, a previously healthy 60-year-old. I think of…the list of personal connections I have to COVID-19 deaths is lengthy.

When I donate blood, I choose to save a life. Like that of the patient in Philadelphia. When I got vaccinated, I chose to save lives also. It wasn’t just about me.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: What we can do May 26, 2021

Photographed at the Northfield Public Library. Minnesota Prairie Roots edited and copyrighted photo.

IF YOUR FRIEND was battling cancer, what would you do? Send an encouraging card? Deliver a meal? Offer a ride to the doctor’s office? Plan or support a fundraiser for her?

Now, what if that same friend was battling clinical depression? Would you do the same?

I’d like to hope we’d all answer “yes.” That we would respond in the same loving and supportive way whether someone was fighting cancer or dealing with a serious, debilitating mental illness.

But the truth is that most of us wouldn’t. And there are multiple reasons for our inaction. We are unaware. We don’t understand. We’re too uncomfortable. We’re at a loss as to what to do. We may even wonder why our friend can’t just get over it.

THE STRUGGLE IS REAL

Yet, those struggling with serious mental health issues need our support, encouragement, understanding, compassion and love. They can’t simply wish away chemical imbalances in their brains. They can’t simply take a pill and magically return to good health. The struggle is real. As real as cancer.

I’m hopeful that an increasing focus on mental health, especially during the pandemic, will shift thinking and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. That’s a start. But so much more needs to be done.

WE NEED…

We need more mental health professionals. In my area of Minnesota, the wait to see a psychiatrist can be lengthy. Some doctors are not even taking new patients. Psychiatric care is limited, especially in areas outside the metro. That’s how bad it is. Imagine being in a mental health crisis, the equivalent of a heart attack, and being told you can’t get medical attention for six weeks? That’s reality for way too many people.

We need more funding for research that will lead to new, more effective medications or other treatments for mental illnesses.

We need early intervention. Education. Heightened awareness.

We need to move this beyond buzz words and hashtags. We need to stop throwing out offensive words like “crazy,” “insane,” or “nuts” when talking about mental illness or anything, really.

YOU CAN HELP

I recognize we as individuals hold little power over changing most of those problems. But we do have the ability to, on a very basic level, acknowledge and support those in our circle who are dealing with mental health issues. Send a card. Deliver a meal. Offer a ride. Listen. Give a financial gift—individuals and families in the throes of a mental health crisis often face overwhelming financial challenges. There’s so much we can do. If only we choose to take action.

FYI: May marks Mental Health Awareness Month. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for information on mental health. If you or someone you love is in crisis, seek immediate medical attention in your emergency room. That’s a starting point. Above all, please know that help is available and that you are not alone. The same goes for those who care for and love family members struggling with mental health. NAMI offers confidential family support groups.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental health: The family living along Hidden Valley Road May 10, 2021

…I THOUGHT I WAS such a good mother. I baked a cake and a pie every night. Or at least had Jell-O with whipped cream.

That quote from Mimi Galvin, mother of 12, struck me as particularly personal and profound in a 377-page book focusing on one family’s experiences with schizophrenia. Six of Mimi and Don Galvin’s children developed schizophrenia, labeled by author Robert Kolker as “humanity’s most perplexing disease.”

Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road—Inside the Mind of an American Family rates as a difficult read. But this 2020 Oprah’s Book Club pick is something every single person should read to understand the depths and intricacies of a biologically-based brain disorder like schizophrenia. And how it affected one Colorado family with children born between 1945-1965.

But back to that quote and the context thereof. Doctors and others blamed Mimi for her sons’ mental illnesses. Their criticism left her crushed, traumatized, paralyzed, ashamed. Feeling all alone and guilty, as if she wasn’t a “good mother.” Such was the accusatory thinking of medical professionals. Mothers, especially, were targeted and even labeled as “schizophrenogenic mothers.” Can you imagine? Movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (released in 1960) reinforced that theory with Norman Bates’ mother blamed for his delusional homicidal mania.

This was also the era of shock therapy and restraints and so much misunderstanding and horror. Even unafflicted Galvin siblings wondered why their brothers couldn’t simply snap out of it. That thought pattern seems almost laughable, even absurd, to me. Yet, too many people still think that. Why can’t someone simply shut out delusional thoughts and paranoia, stop talking gibberish, separate perception from reality, silence the voices in their head, go to sleep rather than stay awake all night…? And more, much more, detailed with heartbreaking truth in this story of the Galvin family.

This family experienced heartbreak almost beyond belief. Tragedy. Abuse. Violence. Disconnect. Feelings of abandonment. So. Much. Trauma.

If I ended this review now, you would likely feel incredibly disheartened, wondering why you would even want to read such a book. And you would be justified in thinking that. But this story of an American family in the thick of schizophrenia is also inspiring. Hopeful. The Galvins allowed researchers to study their DNA, to learn more about “humanity’s most perplexing disease.” A disease centered in the brain. A disease with genetic markers. Mutations. A spectrum illness. No more mother/parent blaming.

I won’t attempt to further explain those scientific findings. I’m not, as I term myself, a medical person. I had to read and reread the medical parts of this book. But I grasp the basics. That researchers, although too often hindered by lack of funding (including from pharmaceutical companies), continue to work on researching and understanding schizophrenia, on finding better medications to treat symptoms and, ultimately, to prevent the onset of this horrible disease.

I encourage you to read Hidden Valley Road. You may struggle to get through this story. But press on. And then, when you’ve finished, vow to love, support and encourage anyone dealing with mental health issues. And their families.

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FYI: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you or someone you love is struggling with mental health, seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, which originated in Minnesota, is a good place to start. I will continue to do what I can to advocate, educate and increase awareness.

I invite you to read three previous reviews I’ve written on books that focus on mental health:

Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling

Behind the Wall—The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents by Mary Widdifield and Elin Widdifield

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls—Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946-1954 by Susan Bartlett Foote

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

COVID-19 deaths reach 100 in Rice County April 7, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo used for illustration only.

YESTERDAY MY COUNTY of Rice reached a mournful milestone with the 100th death of a resident due to COVID-19. That individual was only in his/her upper fifties.

Not that age matters. Every individual is to be valued, whether a child, a senior or anyone in between. Yet, I am citing this age to reaffirm that COVID kills more than the oldest among us. None of us knows how COVID will affect us. We may experience mild or no symptoms or symptoms so severe we land in an ICU. We could become long-haulers. Or we could die.

In the span of a year, 100 individuals in Rice County, population 64,142, died due to COVID-19. That’s a lot of families grieving, hurting, adjusting to life without a person they loved. Think about that for a minute or ten.

SEEING MORE & MORE NON-MASKERS & HALF-MASKERS

And then consider this. Every time I am out in public—whether buying groceries or shopping at a Big Box store or popping into the local dollar store, I see half-maskers and non-maskers. Their numbers are increasing. Just the other evening I stopped to pick up balloons for my granddaughter’s birthday and two young women stood behind me in line, neither wearing a mask. I exited that store angry and frustrated and wondering what’s so d**n hard about wearing a face mask.

I feel that way a lot. We are so close to this pandemic ending and people are exhibiting incredibly selfish behavior by not masking, or by half-masking. This has been an issue since mask mandates went in to place in Minnesota last summer. This is not about making a political statement or taking away individual rights, but rather about public health, about preventing the spread of a virus, about saving lives. Why can’t people understand that? Do non-maskers and half-maskers ever pause to consider that they may unknowingly pass along a virus which could make someone really sick or even kill someone? Where is the sense of responsibility, the concern for fellow human beings?

So, yeah, when I see individuals like the young father in the grocery store with a gator pulled over the back of his neck and over the top portion of his head but not covering his face, I feel disrespected. I tried to avoid him. But he bounced around the aisles like a ping pong ball. Ironically, his elementary-aged daughter wore her face mask correctly. He should follow her example.

THIS IS PERSONAL

My husband, who works in an automotive machine shop, tells me mask compliance is getting worse with maybe half his customers masking. That concerns me. I love him. I don’t want some idiot I-don’t-give-a-d**n-about-COVID customer infecting him. He doesn’t have a work-from-home option. Only recently did Randy secure a vaccine appointment, even though he’s nearly 65. Our tech savvy daughter helped him land that. Without her help, he’d still be waiting. If you’re anti-vaccine, don’t bother to tell me in the comments section. I refuse to give voice to that viewpoint or to misinformation on this, my personal blog.

According to statistics shared on the Rice County Public Health website on April 6, nearly 42 percent of the county population has received at least one vaccine dose. That seems a good start. But I know from our experience that vaccine appointments are elusive. Randy drove to Owatonna for his shot at a Big Box store. There he met a young mom from Lonsdale desperate to get an appointment for her immune-compromised mother.

While Randy got vaccinated, I shopped for a few essentials. And the entire time, I dodged half-maskers and non-maskers and wondered why? Why can’t we all care about one another and do the right thing by masking, and masking properly? In one section of the store, a pharmacist injected a life-saving vaccine. And, in too many aisles, too many customers (and some employees) chose to ignore a very basic way to stop the spread of COVID-19 by masking.

100 DEAD AND COUNTING

And now here we are with 6,889 Minnesotans dead (as of April 6) due to COVID-19, with 100 of those in my county of Rice.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My observations about masking in rural Minnesota March 8, 2021

A sign posted at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

TODAY MY COUNTY OF RICE reported its 92nd COVID-related death. That saddens me. I don’t know the identity of this latest individual to die from the virus. But that matters not. What matters is that, to family and friends, this is the loss of a loved one.

That’s something we all need to remember. Ninety-two represents much more than a number added to the growing statistics. It represents a life.

With that said, I need to vent. And if you’re weary of reading about anything COVID-related, then stop reading right now. But I’m frustrated, beyond frustrated.

On Saturday, Randy and I headed to two small towns south of Owatonna. Just to get out of town for a bit. We’ve previously toured both, but several years ago. Driving into rural Minnesota, parking on Main Street and then walking to see what we can find is an adventure.

WHAT MASKS?

Our day trip into these two rural Steele County communities on Saturday proved to be an adventure alright. What we found was absolutely, totally, disheartening. Compliance to Minnesota’s state mask mandate is pretty much non-existent. That left me exiting several businesses—a hardware store and boutiques—before the doors had barely closed behind me. And we’re not talking just customers here without masks. We’re talking owners and employees.

Never mind the signs posted outside these businesses stating that “masks are required.” Why bother? Oh, because the state requires posting of these signs, apparently.

FEELING DISRESPECTED

Here’s how I felt when I saw those business owners and employees without masks. I felt disrespected. I felt unsafe. I felt unwelcome. I felt frustrated. I felt angry. I felt like they didn’t really want my business. And, as much as I wanted to say something to them about my feelings, I didn’t. You never know who’s carrying a gun these days and may harm you if you speak up. So I walked out.

And the thing is, several of those small town boutiques, especially, were inviting little shops filled with merchandise that may have interested me. But I felt uncomfortable from the moment the unmasked shopkeepers greeted me and I turned to make a hasty exit.

BUSINESSES LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Interestingly enough, while Randy was shopping at a popular family-owned meat market in the town a mile off the interstate, he found full mask mandate compliance and even a plexi-glass shield separating cashiers from customers. Plus hand sanitizer. So kudos to that meat market and the local grocery store owner, who was also masked. I observed a woman I’d previously seen, unmasked at the boutique, walk into the meat market wearing a mask. Interesting, huh? A business sets the tone for customer compliance.

This masking issue isn’t a problem unique to small towns. When we returned to Faribault and stopped to pick up a few groceries, I spotted mask-less customers. They are increasing in number. The non-maskers and half-maskers. But at least I don’t see business owners and employees without masks in my community (except at the farm implement dealer). That’s the difference. In the two small towns in Steele County, business owners and employees were without masks. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. Masks are a scientifically-proven way to prevent spread of COVID-19. Why risk the health of customers? This, what I perceive as selfish and uncaring behavior, left me with a really negative perspective of these two towns. And that’s something no business, no community, needs, especially now.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Fauci & face masks February 17, 2021

I APPRECIATE DR. ANTHONY FAUCI. He’s been a strong, calm, unwavering source of factual information about COVID-19 since the pandemic began. I trust him. As director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, he speaks as a scientist, and also as an individual and official who cares deeply about others. He speaks truth, with no interest in self-glory. He never compromised, even in the face of public criticism from the highest powers.

Now he’s been named a recipient of the 2021 Dan David Prize for his contributions to health and medicine. The accolades and accompanying $1 million prize money are well-deserved. In noting his accomplishments, the Israeli-headquartered foundation cited Fauci’s global work in infectious diseases. HIV. Ebola. Zika. COVID-19. That’s an impressive list of professional credits.

Fauci impresses me as a man of incredible character. Or, as the awardees stated, “speaking truth to power.”

When I consider this scientist and all he’s done for the health and well-being of not only Americans, but also the global world, I consider how his expertise is still dismissed by some. Too many really. Just recently I walked away from a conversation in which the value of wearing face masks was questioned. Dr. Fauci’s name was mentioned. Although I voiced my disagreement, I realized it held no weight to these individuals. So I walked away.

I photographed this sign on a business in Crosby. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

I am walking away more and more these days from people. Generally not people in conversation, because I’m seldom around anyone long enough to carry on a conversation. But walking away from people in public places who refuse to either wear face masks or who do not wear them over their mouths and noses. Those numbers are increasing, and I just do not get it. Walk into any grocery store in Faribault and you’ll see them—the non-maskers, the half-maskers. Even some cashiers are half-maskers and, when I see that, I call them out. I figure they owe it to customers to protect and respect them if they want their business.

We have a mask mandate in Minnesota requiring those ages six and over to wear face masks in public places. Children ages two to five are strongly encouraged to also wear masks. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo June 2020.

When I pick up the local daily newspaper, I see photos of people grouped together, unmasked. And when I turn to the sports page, photo upon photo upon photo shows half-masked athletes. It’s disheartening. Disappointing. I am weary, too, of the political rhetoric over mask mandates.

The reason the Rare Pair in Northfield gives for wearing face masks. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo summer 2020.

I want people to do the right thing. Just wear a face mask and wear it correctly. Or, as my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter told her little friend recently, “It goes over your nose and mouth!” And, yes, she wears a face mask as does her little brother, who just turned two. If preschoolers can mask properly, so can adults.

For the 15 minutes or half hour or hour adults are grocery shopping or whatever in public, they can wear a mask and wear it correctly. Hanging around your neck doesn’t count. Nor does wearing a plastic shield without a mask meet CDC guidelines. The CDC now recommends double masking for added protection. I don’t know what it will take for people to understand the importance of mask-wearing. A locally-targeted marketing campaign. Public service announcements. My granddaughter accompanying me to the grocery stores in Faribault with her masking message.

Masking, and masking correctly, is about keeping all of us healthy and safe. Me. You. Your friends and neighbors and loved ones. Strangers. My granddaughter. And it’s about common sense and believing scientists, like Dr. Anthony Fauci.

FYI: Click here to read specifics on Minnesota’s mask mandate.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“The Great Invader,” neither fable nor fairy tale February 2, 2021

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Edited painting by Ruby from the 2018 student art show at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

ONCE UPON A TIME, in The Land of Plenty…

Ah, a fairy tale, you say. Not exactly. Rather, this is a story rooted in reality. A story with a main character who, for ease of writing, shall be identified in secondary references as “he.” Not that The Great Invader is male.

So let’s dive into the story. Once upon a time in The Land of Plenty, The Great Invader landed, making himself comfortably at home. He was, by nature, a traveler. But he wasn’t the type of guest you’d knowingly invite into your home. You know the kind. Ungrateful. Demanding. Messy. And mean, just plain mean. Because of those undesirable traits, he soon found himself on the road, hopping from place to place under a guise of masterful deception. West Coast to East Coast. Then to the South and Up North and to the Midwest. He wanted, above all, to avoid detection and negative publicity.

But word soon got out about The Great Invader. Scientists found him especially fascinating. The more they studied the strange-looking traveler with his signature spiky hair, the more alarmed they grew. They realized he was much more than he appeared. Dangerous. He left a path of death and destruction wherever he went. Yes, that’s a cliché. But it fits.

The scientists warned about the intruder and suggested ways to deal with him. By then they’d studied him in their labs and determined that he traveled mostly by air. No ticket required. “Wear masks,” public health officials who collaborated with the scientists, advised. “Distance yourself from others. Avoid crowds. If you’re sick or feel like you’re coming down with something, stay home.” All of those tactics would discourage The Great Invader. But these proactive protocols were especially difficult for some people in The Land of Plenty to hear, let alone follow. They didn’t like anyone telling them what to do.

The Great Invader was acutely aware of these efforts to stop his adventures. He also recognized the discontent and division spreading across the land like a California wildfire. He needed a plan. And he didn’t have to think too hard. He’d simply rely on people who doubted scientists, who took little stock in warnings from health officials, who spread false information, especially via social media. People who could be a voice. He didn’t much care if that voice was loud or insidiously quiet.

As the months passed, The Great Invader found his hands-off strategy working quite well. He traveled to nearly every corner of The Land of Plenty. Even to the smallest village, where the villagers never dreamed he would visit and leave his imprint. “Why would The Great Invader come here? We have no great theaters or art museums or sports arenas or five-star restaurants or any major tourist attractions,” the villagers reasoned. So many went on with life as usual. Yet, an undercurrent of concern began to bubble when evidence of The Great Invader’s presence surfaced in the remotest of villages.

Meanwhile, across The Land of Plenty, scientists, health and government officials, and even journalists, were tracking The Great Invader on his journey around the country. And the world. They soon discovered they were no longer dealing with a sole sojourner, but rather many with magical powers. The spiky haired traveler had reproduced millions, if not billions, of times and created new versions of himself. This frightened the scientists, who by then had called upon experts to develop a battle plan. They needed to stop the traveler as he asserted his deadly powers. So researchers created a powerful potion to protect the people.

Soon squabbles arose as to who would get the potion first. The Great Invader laughed. He thrived on chaos, confusion and discontent. And lies. He admired selfishness.

He also secretly applauded those who defied common sense and science. He reveled, especially, in those in The Land of Plenty who refused to wear face masks. He celebrated every single person who wore their masks below their noses. And he saw plenty of those, whom he considered valued allies. The mask-less and the half-maskers allowed The Great Invader to travel with ease. If he found himself temporarily removed from a region, he just moved on for a while, only to return when people thought he’d permanently left.

And so, while the people of the land claimed all sorts of indignities brought on by The Great Invader and even tried to stop distribution of the powerful potion, he continued mapping his routes, plotting strategies and documenting his travels in his Once Upon a Time journal.

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NOTE: In every story there are truths, this one no exception. To all who have encountered The Great Invader/COVID-19 at his worst, I am sorry.

Observations in my community of Faribault sparked the idea for this story. As COVID-19 infections and deaths rise in Rice County, I see too many individuals in public who are wearing masks below their noses and/or mouths or not masking at all. I am beyond frustrated. We’re not talking just a few people. While I shopped at a local big box retailer, a smaller discount store and grocery stores recently, I saw perhaps 30 individuals who were half-maskers, plus a mask-less couple and children old enough to wear masks (but who were unmasked). Employees were among those half-maskers. I implore the people of Faribault to, please, just wear a tight-fitting, multi-layered mask, and wear it over your mouth AND nose. It’s not that difficult.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A COVID-19 update & thoughts from Rice County, Minnesota January 22, 2021

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Valley Grove Cemetery, used for illustration only.

SLIGHTLY OVER A MONTH has passed since I wrote about COVID-19 in my southeastern Minnesota county. And in those 34 days, 22 more individuals in Rice County have died due to the virus, bringing our total deaths to 69. Since the pandemic began, the number of people infected with COVID (January 21 county stats) stands at 6,139.

My heart breaks when I consider the death data, because behind every number is a person. Someone who loved and was loved. The virus claimed individuals ranging in age from 24 – 104. Most (42) lived in long term care centers.

I scrolled through area obituaries to find a few of those individuals who died due to COVID. I appreciate when families publicly share that cause of death as I think it’s a personally powerful way to make a statement to the community that, This virus is deadly.

READ THEIR NAMES

In my brief search, I found these names: Craig, 71; Ted, 77; Harvey, 75; Chuck, 89; Norma, 92; and Dave, 87. Dave, part of my faith family, was a long-time funeral home director prior to retiring and passing along the business to his son. Craig was a Faribault pastor, the first in my county to die of COVID-19 in April.

While my immediate family has thus far remained healthy, many extended family members have gotten and recovered from the virus. Friends have also been ill, including one hospitalized for two weeks. I indirectly know others who’ve been hospitalized and/or died. They are individuals I’ve sometimes prayed for for weeks as they’ve battled the virus and struggled to recover.

My niece will tell you the story of a friend who has suffered serious, severe and long-lasting complications from COVID-19. That’s the thing about this virus. We never know if we will experience only a mild case or something much more serious. Even deadly. Age is not a given protection.

MASK WEARING REMAINS AN ISSUE

Wearing a multi-layered, tight-fitting mask (and, no, a plastic face shield alone doesn’t count as CDC-approved protection); socially distancing; washing/sanitizing hands often; avoiding time with those outside our household, especially in enclosed spaces; and staying home when sick or with COVID symptoms remain as important as ever to help stop the spread of the virus. I can’t stress those health and safety protocols enough.

I continue to see people in public without masks or wearing them below their noses and sometimes even below their mouths. That frustrates me to no end—this inability to wear a mask or to wear it correctly by covering both the mouth AND the nose. It’s not that difficult. Even my 2-year-old grandson wears his mask properly. Why is it so hard for adults (like the cashiers at a local dollar store, some grocery store customers, etc.) to do so? Most troubling was the half-masker sporting a jacket for an area small town volunteer fire and rescue department. I want to scream at these people and confront them. (I don’t. I avoid them.) And, yes, that may sound judgy. But at this point in the pandemic, when a new variant is increasing spread, masks are even more important. People ought to care about protecting others. They ought to care that their neighbors are getting really sick and/or dying.

HOPEFUL AS VACCINES ROLL OUT

As of yesterday, 2,039 people in Rice County, or 3.1 percent, have started the vaccination process targeted first to those living in long term care settings and working in healthcare. It’s a start in a county with a population of 65,765. Some vaccines have also been set aside for childcare workers, educators and those age 65 and over. That said, the supply cannot meet demand. Yet, I am thankful for vaccination beginning and hopeful that will amp up under the Biden administration.

Randy and I are some eight months shy of the age 65 cut-off. I’m not worried about myself as much as my husband. He faces possible COVID exposure in the workplace. (And, yes, there have been cases.) As a highly-skilled and in high demand automotive machinist, working from home is not an option. So I ask him to mask and distance himself from co-workers and customers, especially those non-maskers and half-maskers.

If Randy gets COVID, I likely will, too. And I’d rather not test how my body will react. A severe case of whooping cough at age 50, which left me incredibly sick for three months, gasping for air, using an inhaler and taking a steroid, shows me just how awful an illness that affects the lungs and impedes breathing. I expect COVID would be worse. Much worse.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

As COVID continues, thoughts from Linda & me December 19, 2020

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I photographed my mom’s hands when I last visited her in-person in her care center in early March. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U

Each letter in the two rows above represents a person who lost their life to COVID-19 in my county of Rice.

Forty-seven individuals ranging in age from 24 to 94.

These were our family and friends and neighbors. Sons and daughters and husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and one, Dave, part of my faith family.

I think sometimes we lose site of the humanity in the statistics. These numbers come from the Rice County Public Health weekly COVID-19 report, last updated December 18.

Of those who died in Rice County, Minnesota, to date, 25 lived in long-term care settings, 17 in private residences and five in prison.

My heart breaks for those who have lost loved ones to this horrible virus. I’m sorry. Deeply sorry. That includes extended family and friends now without a sister, a father, a father-in-law, an uncle.

A POWERFUL LETTER BY A DAUGHTER

My mom’s care center. The last time I visited my mom, it was on a phone through these glass doors. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Recently, I read an especially touching letter to the editor penned by Linda Hoffman of neighboring Owatonna and published in my local newspaper. It was titled The virus takes its opportunity where it can find it. Linda recently lost her mother, a resident of a care facility, to COVID. She addresses the issue of people disregarding masking and other health and safety protocols. Linda emphasizes how the repeated message that, of those who died recently from COVID in Minnesota, “60% were residents of long-term care facilities and most had underlying health conditions” may create a false sense of security. Her point: this may partially explain why some people are not masking, thinking it’s just old people in nursing homes who are dying. They are wrong, she says, as she writes of how a young person running around with friends can pick up and spread the virus.

It’s a powerful letter that ends with this admonition to those who fail to mask up, who live life like there’s no pandemic, who complain about closed businesses and government restrictions:

So when you hear the news that 60% of COVID fatalities are residents of long-term care facilities with underlying health conditions, don’t think that you had nothing to do with their death.

Wow. That’s powerful.

I JUST DON’T GET IT.

The reason the Rare Pair in Northfield gives for wearing face masks. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

Like Linda, I’m weary of ignorant attitudes, of the failure to wear face masks. Every time I’m out and about in Faribault, which isn’t all that often because I’m trying to stay healthy, I see people without masks or people wearing them below their noses. I’ve observed preschoolers wearing masks without a problem and then will pass by an adult with no mask. And most of the time, those mask-less individuals are young adults, who can often be asymptomatic and spread the virus.

I don’t understand how, after 47 deaths in my county, after 5,152 confirmed and probable cases of COVID, after 177 hospitalizations (with 35 in ICU), people still do not recognize the importance of masking, social distancing, hand washing, and avoiding gatherings and crowds to prevent and stop the spread of the virus.

I MISS MY MOM.

Me with my mom during a January visit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2020 by Randy Helbling.

My 88-year-old mom (who is in hospice) and 90-year-old father-in-law live in care centers in other parts of Minnesota, in counties with incredibly high per capita rates of COVID. Their centers have been on lockdowns due to COVID cases more times than I recall. I want to visit my mom in-person, to hug her, hold her hand. I last did that in early March. But I understand the need to keep visitors away, to keep residents well. I would never risk giving my mom COVID and being responsible for her death.

I understand Linda’s anger penned in her letter. I feel her pain, appreciate her points. And I want to add that, even if 60% of Minnesota’s COVID deaths occurred in residents of long-term care centers, their lives are no less important. I value our elders. None of them should suffer and die, with or without family, from the virus.

Forty-seven individuals in my county, to date, have lost their lives due to COVID. It is incumbent upon each of us to follow health and safety guidelines to protect ourselves and others. Yes, vaccines are here and for that I feel grateful. Vaccinations take time, though. We need to commit to caring. About others, not just ourselves.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Focus on mental illness: A Minnesota family’s story December 2, 2020

I READ THE BOOK in a single day. That should tell you something. Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son by Mindy Greiling is an incredibly powerful book. It is painfully honest, deeply personal and informative. A must read, whether you know little or a lot about people with serious mental illnesses.

Greiling writes about the flaws in the mental healthcare system—from lack of providers and treatments and options to poor communication to the struggles families face, too often alone.

You will cry with this mother as she shares the challenges faced by her son, Jim, diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and also a substance abuser. You will feel her pain, her fear, her anger. This is her story. Jim’s story. Her family’s story. Maybe your, or a loved one’s, story.

GRIEF. ANGER. ADVOCACY.

Mindy writes of transitioning through the stages of grief. From anger to advocacy. Not because her son has died, but rather grieving the loss of what may have been if not for Jim’s disease. She takes her personal experiences and uses her position as a state representative to effect changes in Minnesota laws and ways in which people view mental illness. She became involved in the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She became not only Jim’s advocate, but an advocate for the broader base. All the while managing her own fears and feelings of being alone through all of this, of experiencing trauma.

IMAGINE.

Imagine if your son heard voices directing him to kill you. Imagine if your son suffered from paranoia. Imagine if your son had to get off the one most effective medication for his disease because side effects could kill him. Imagine…

This was/is reality for the Greiling family as Jim continues to navigate life and his disease. But it is also a story of hope and resilience and the strength of not only Mindy, but of her son. She recognizes that, even with schizoaffective disorder, Jim is capable of so much. She believes in him. Never gives up. You will see that repeated throughout the pages of this book written by a determined and caring mother faced with crisis after crisis.

There is no fairy tale ending to this story. Jim’s is a life-long disease with no cure.

PUTTING A FACE TO A DISEASE

I admire Mindy, who sought her son’s input in writing this book released in early October. I admire Jim’s strength in the public telling of his story. Such first-hand accounts make an impact, take a disease beyond statistics to a face. An individual. A family. This is a mother trying her best to secure help for her son, to advocate when needed, to make tough decisions when necessary. This is a family in need of understanding and support, all too often missing when it comes to mental illness. When Mindy’s husband, Roger, emails extended family and asks them to send get well cards to Jim in a hospital psych ward, my heart breaks. But this is too often reality. Families feel alone, without much-needed support from family and friends.

LEARN. LISTEN. SUPPORT.

I encourage you to read Fix What You Can—Schizophrenia and a Lawmaker’s Fight for Her Son published by the University of Minnesota Press. And then, when you’ve finished, reassess how you feel about individuals who are dealing with mental illness. Consider that they did not choose these brain diseases, just like people do not choose cancer.

There is much to be learned from the Greiling family’s story. We’ve come a long way in opening up about mental health. But so much remains to be done. We need more mental healthcare providers. (Mindy writes of a six-week wait for Jim to see a psychiatrist, more common here in Minnesota than uncommon.) We need more programs. More funding. More housing and treatment options. More training for law enforcement. More understanding and compassion. And support. We can pledge, as individuals, to educate ourselves about mental illness and then to take that knowledge and be that person who sends a card, listens, prepares a meal…for an individual/family in need of our ongoing care, compassion, understanding and support. A family like the Greilings.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling