I’ve been in the medical field for 15 years, and in my medical training I was taught that you should sing happy birthday twice while washing your hands to get off all the germs – high-level stuff that I learned at a very prestigious school. Well, now that we can’t get together for birthday parties then I suppose your next best choice is “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, because some days it feels like we are just trying to keep going. Even here in rural America, COVID-19 has exposed the weaknesses in our homes, our communities and our country.
In the past, I might have taken care of one or two people a day for mental health issues, but now there are days that 90% of my patients want to discuss anxiety associated with the pandemic. A disease we can’t see and can’t seem to get a grasp on all across the globe seemingly hides around every corner, affecting everything from meat and toilet paper supply to our jobs and schools. I see friends, family members and strong community leaders come in for mental strain and stress caused by being laid off work or from the fear of dying from a disease with no cure and no widely accepted treatment. The truth is, if we all sit and think about our lives and our futures in the current societal climate, it is easy to see how any of us could succumb to anxiety, worry and depression.
We are tough in farm country. Sometimes we think we are too strong to be seen as weak, and that we have weathered many storms before and come out “just fine” on the other side. The truth is that none of us are perfect and we all need help, and this fear we are all experiencing is becoming a catalyst for change. It is breaking down barriers and creating conversations with my patients, who have been able to discuss long-standing depression, marital issues, abusive relationships and deep-seeded anger and regret, because COVID-19 has created a space for honest vulnerability where growth is happening as we all try to figure life out. I’m learning and I’m leaning on my family, my colleagues and my community so that we not only get through this together, but so that I can relearn what it means to trust in someone and have someone trust in me regardless of the labels society says we should follow.
This virus has made us quarantine physically in our homes, but in rural America we have a long history of quarantining our emotions and compartmentalizing our fears because we are afraid people might see the real us. In fact, if I could get all my patients and friends to be as real and raw with each other as they are with me, people would see a reflection of themselves with the fear, anxiety, joy, love, compassion, grace and mercy included in that image. We need each other in every single community across this great nation, urban and rural.
I have seen a thousand different responses to this virus in my medical practice. From people refusing to acknowledge that COVID-19 is even real with all the conspiracy theories included, to others that have completely isolated themselves. To be honest though, the overwhelming, most common response I see and hear from my patients has been of caring and compassion toward others, and being sensitive to what we say or do and how it may affect others. Ultimately, our time here on earth is about choices. I have seen altruism become the theme in my patients and my community, even if they don’t see it in themselves.
COVID-19 has scribbled its name on the pages of history, hopefully soon to be just a speed bump and an agent for positive change in the future. Something I have known for a long time, which has been reinforced daily during the pandemic, is that we need each other. I have seen people risk their own health to deliver food to children when school was canceled, making hunger a real risk for many families. And I have seen people adapt and persevere over these new obstacles despite their anxiety and fear with help from a kind word and maybe even becoming new friends with an old neighbor during their quarantine.
News reports often show us a world in which fear appears to be the emotion of the majority and we are divided by the many labels we consciously or subconsciously accept, but in rural America I have seen the opposite. I have seen communities that choose to be present and helpful regardless of labels or media narratives. So whether you choose to quarantine or not, I hope you choose the good things in life. In order for us to change the course of history we must choose reason and communication over confusion, grace and mercy over condemnation, and love over fear.
Matt Niswander (@NiswanderFarms), a Farm Bureau member in Tennessee and member of AFBF’s Grassroots Outreach (GO) Team, is a first-generation cattleman and owner of Niswander Farms. He is also a family nurse practitioner and owns Niswander Family Medicine. He and his wife Colbie have three sons.