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

 

Looking beyond ourselves to the broader community June 24, 2021

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Early in the pandemic, the Rare Pair in Northfield posted this sign on the front door. While social distancing and masking are no longer required in Minnesota, the overall message of LOVE OTHERS can apply to vaccination. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2020.

AS THE BAND PLAYED, as the scent of gyros wafted in the breeze, as the summer day drew to a close in Central Park during Faribault’s Heritage Days celebration, I engaged in a conversation that left me frustrated. The subject: COVID-19 vaccination.

For some 10 minutes, an acquaintance and I discussed the vaccine, specifically his refusal to get vaccinated. I tried to be respectful as I listened to his belief that COVID is no worse than the flu and his assessment that, if he gets the virus, he expects a mild case. He’s around my age, in his 60s. I politely disagreed with his assessment of COVID and stated no one really knows how their body will react to the virus. In our county of Rice 110 people, ranging in age from 24 to 104, have died from COVID.

I shared stories about those, with a connection to Randy and me, who have died of COVID. Those deaths didn’t seem to matter. He acknowledged hearing my concerns, but remained unswayed.

“PARANOID” VS. CAUTIOUS & CARING

When he called his co-workers at a local factory “paranoid” about COVID, I felt myself losing patience. There’s nothing paranoid about concern, about taking precautions, about preventing the spread of a potentially deadly virus. There’s nothing paranoid about caring for your own health and the health of humanity by choosing vaccination.

In hindsight, had I known I would have this conversation, I would have taken a different approach—emphasizing that the decision whether to get vaccinated or not stretches beyond our individual selves to our families, friends, neighbors, and yes, even our co-workers. Even to strangers.

My acquaintance, while seemingly unconcerned about his own health, should feel a sense of responsibility to his community. I wonder how he would feel if he exposed someone to COVID and that person died or suffered long-term health issues. I would struggle with guilt.

I DON’T UNDERSTAND

Not only do I struggle with my acquaintance’s refusal to get vaccinated, but I really struggle with those employed in healthcare settings who are refusing vaccination. At my local hospital, about 37% percent of staff remains unvaccinated, according to a recent story in the Faribault Daily News. They are putting patients at risk by that choice. The same goes for those who work with our elderly and most vulnerable in long-term care centers. Where is the sense of care for others, of respecting science, of maintaining health in a place devoted to health?

GRATITUDE MIXED WITH ONGOING CONCERN

To those of you who have chosen vaccination, thank you. Thank you for protecting yourselves, those you love and the broader community. Because of your choice, we are seeing a significant drop in COVID cases. Vaccines are working. That decline doesn’t apply everywhere, though. In states like Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, where vaccination rates are especially low, COVID cases are still prevalent, according to media reports. And the highly-contagious Delta variant is quickly spreading, accounting for 20% of new COVID cases in the U.S. This pandemic isn’t over yet and I’m concerned for those who aren’t getting, or can’t yet be, vaccinated. Like my acquaintance. And my young grandchildren. And others I know who refuse to trust and accept that vaccines work.

DESPERATE TO BE VACCINATED

In closing, I want to share one final story. A friend’s son and his family are flying from their home in Brazil to Minnesota to get vaccinated. Vaccination is many months away for them in a country hit especially hard by COVID. Their oldest daughter, who has Downs Syndrome and thus is especially vulnerable to the virus, is their primary concern. Think about that for a moment. We can’t give away vaccines in this country. People are refusing them. And here we have a family of four flying some 5,000 miles to get vaccinated. They trust the science. They want to protect themselves. They understand that COVID-19 can be worse than the flu. They are part of our global family and I feel thankful that they are choosing vaccination.

If you are not yet vaccinated, please get vaccinated. Your decision is about more than you. It’s about all of us. Your family. Your friends. Your neighbors. Your co-workers. Your community. Your world.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A strong message from a man who died of COVID-19 June 11, 2021

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Robert Tersteeg. Image from KLGR website.

HIS LAST NAME, Tersteeg, grabbed my attention as I scrolled through the local funeral announcements on the KLGR radio website. I occasionally check the site since I grew up near Redwood Falls.

Back when I lived in this region of southwestern Minnesota, I associated the surname Tersteeg with a grocery store in this Redwood County community. My mom shopped there and my siblings and I sometimes accompanied her.

But the obituary was for Robert Tersteeg, 46, of Minot, North Dakota, and a native of Bird Island. Not someone from my home county, but from neighboring Renville County. Still, I read the obituary given Robert’s young age and familiar name.

He died on June 3 at the University of Minnesota Hospital “after a fierce battle with COVID-19.”

Now that could be the end of the story. But Rob’s family—or more accurately Rob—wanted more to be shared about this “vicious virus.” The part that humanizes COVID-19, that reveals the regrets of a man who died from the virus:

Rob’s final wish was that his journey with COVID might save even just one more loving husband, son, father, uncle, friend. Rob regretted not being vaccinated and, immediately upon hospitalization, made Amy (his wife) promise to vaccinate the kids (Nikolai, Olivia, Kaylie).

Saturday morning those who loved Rob will gather for his funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bird Island. He is not just another number in the statistics of COVID deaths. He was a family man who loved and was loved. And now he is gone, too soon, leaving one final wish—a desire to save lives with his message to “get vaccinated.”

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NOTE: If you are anti-vaccine, please do not comment on this post. I won’t publish your comment on this, my personal blog. I feel grateful to Rob’s family for publicly sharing his final wish/message in a desire to save lives.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Rice County: Fair or not? April 20, 2021

The Rice County Fair office, Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

DECADES AGO, AS A YOUNG newspaper reporter, I covered county fairs. I’d grab my notebook and my camera and head to the fairgrounds. One particular summer, I was assigned to photograph 4-H kids and their animals at the Brown County Free Fair in New Ulm while working for The Sleepy Eye Herald-Dispatch. I spent days tracking down youth and photographing them with their prize livestock. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Horses. Chickens. Try getting animals to cooperate for a photo shoot. Not easy. The experience left me so exhausted and fair-weary that I lost all interest in county fairs.

Among the many popular local food booths. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Rice County 4-H is an integral part of the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Next to a livestock building sits this carnival ride, originating in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Ever since, I’ve seldom attended a county fair. But I recognize most people love fairs, including the Rice County Fair here in Faribault. They enjoy the food, the carnival rides, the entertainment, the exhibits and, yes, even all those penned animals hauled to town by 4-H families.

Livestock buildings at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Last summer, COVID-19 canceled our fair. And most other fairs, including The Minnesota State Fair, aka The Great Minnesota Get-Together. This summer, from small town Minnesota to the metro, officials hope to host fairs. In Rice County, the fair board tentatively plans for a July 21-25 fair. Whether that happens will depend on the pandemic and state restrictions on gatherings.

The open air BINGO shed at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Root photo March 2021.
Just across the way from the BINGO shed sits the Beer Garden. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
One of the newer fair buildings houses open class exhibits. Minnesota Prairie Roots file March 2021.

I’m all for putting health and safety first. This pandemic is far from over with cases of the virus surging. I recognize the weariness folks are feeling, but don’t accept that as an excuse for behavior that is increasing the spread. If people want to enjoy BINGO and beer, cheese curds and carnival rides, art and animals, and so much more at the fair, then they need to intentionally choose to help stop the spread of COVID. Mask up. Properly. Social distance. Stay home when feeling unwell. Get vaccinated.

An example of needed touch-ups. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

On a recent afternoon, Randy and I walked the Rice County Fairgrounds, just to have a different place to explore away from people. The emptiness of the space, without distracting crowds, exposes much. I observed that many of the aging buildings need upkeep, especially paint.

The new public restrooms at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I’m sure fair-goers will appreciate one new addition—the construction of public restrooms.

A view of the grandstand underside. This was rebuilt following an arson fire many years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

I often wonder why the fairgrounds aren’t used more, especially the grandstand. That said, the Cannon Valley Farmers’ Market sets up occasionally at the fairgrounds in Faribault. Car shows and food trucks have also used the grounds. In a year when spread of the virus remains an ongoing concern, this vast outdoor space offers options to indoor gatherings.

Photographed on the side of the Rice County Fair office in March. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Whether the Rice County Fair happens in July remains unknown. It’s really up to us to follow public health and safety mandates/guidelines and to choose vaccination. We’re not powerless. We have the ability to control our behavior, to think beyond ourselves to the public good. To make the fair happen in 2021.

FYI: Rice County is lagging in vaccinations. According to Rice County Public Health April 16 data, 41.7 percent of county residents ages 16 and above have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That compares to 52 percent statewide. We can do better.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Please check back for more Rice County Fairgrounds photos.