'We will continue on': White Earth doctor finds hope, resilience in connection despite pandemic

People waiting in the hall.
Recipients of the COVID-19 vaccine are monitored for about 50 minutes in December at the White Earth Health Center to make sure no one has adverse reactions. Health care workers on reservations across Minnesota were among the first in the state to be vaccinated.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020

Dr. Carson Gardner has been a physician for more than four decades.

But watching the coronavirus pandemic unfold over the past year has reinforced his belief that simply listening has great value in the practice of medicine.

A man sits in his office chair next to a somewhat cluttered desk
Dr. Carson Gardner is medical director for the White Earth Public Health Department and ambulance service.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

"Caring about people,” he said. “That's always, I think, been the most important thing for me personally — listening to people who have health care needs and concerns and emergencies, and have fears and hopes and confusion, and hearing what they're asking and then responding to what they're asking.”

Being heard is important for worried patients and families — and for the people on the front lines who are helping them.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

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Gardner is medical director of the White Earth Nation’s tribal health department, and one of the people who has been leading the fight against the coronavirus on the tribe’s northern Minnesota reservation for months as a member of its COVID-19 response emergency operations team.

Native nations in Minnesota were able to manage the early months of the coronavirus pandemic with relatively few cases and deaths. But that all changed in early fall, when cases and deaths began to surge. As of earlier this week, the White Earth Reservation has reported 639 total COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

But there is hope: The White Earth Nation is well into its vaccination program — it was one of the first communities in Minnesota to begin vaccinating — and case rates have begun to slow. The reservation’s COVID-19 response team meets a couple of times a day to manage everything from testing to delivering meals for elders.

"And while we're social distancing and mask-wearing, we still talk to each other,” Gardner said. “We talk about problems and frustrations we laugh together we cry together.”

And the listening that has been critical to helping patients and their families through this terrible disease, he said, has been just as critical in helping the people mounting the tribe’s response to COVID-19 maintain their sense of community — even at a distance.

"Some of the most important times of the day are the unscripted five or 10 minutes after a meeting, where we just share something humorous, or something frightening, or something frustrating, and then talk about it for a while,” Gardner said.

Within the group, it's Gardner’s job to be the voice of science, while respecting the vital role of cultural beliefs in fighting the pandemic.

A sign reads White Earth Health Center
White Earth Health Center in the village of White Earth.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020

“Testing is important, vaccine is important,” he said. “But also elder nutrition, food deliveries, food boxes, basic home living supplies — and making sure that no one was alone, without anyone to recognize they were in need.”

The response team tackles it all, he said.

“Those personal contact things — and sharing hope for us as Anishinaabe, that means sharing spiritual and cultural hope, as well as medical hope,” he said.

Gardner has deep roots at White Earth. It's been difficult, in recent months, to see respected tribal elders and young healthy people alike suffer from — and die — of COVID-19. Many elders who die take with them deep knowledge of language and culture, making it difficult to pass those traditions on to younger generations.

The recent death of a well-known elder, he said would normally have brought a thousand people together for a multiday funeral. But now, in this time of limited interactions and social distancing, it's an event that was limited, to prevent coronavirus spread.

Gardner writes poetry as therapy in his downtime, and in the midst of his days spent focused on the latest coronavirus science, the most effective testing methods and the logistics of coronavirus vaccine distribution, he turns to traditional spiritual beliefs for strength and comfort: “Debwewin, nibwaakaawin, zoongide'ewin, zaagi'idiwin, manazoonidiwin, gwayakwaadiziwin, dabaadendiziwin, mino-bimaaduziwin” in Anishinaabemowin, the Ojibwe language.

"Here it is in English: Truth, wisdom, courage, compassionate love, respect, honesty, humility, living life in a good way," he said.

Holding fast to those principles is how Native communities have survived hundreds of years of tragedy, Gardner said — and they offer the best hope for getting through the losses suffered, and the losses yet to come from this pandemic.

"We will grieve the loss of our friends and family, and our respected leaders, but we will not be disconnected from the river of Anishinaabe life,” he said. “We will continue on. Doesn't make it hurt any less — we will be angry and sad and shocked. We'll go through the stages of grief and loss, but we'll go on."

A water tower is seen past a field
The water tower of the village of White Earth.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020

Medicine Bag Cord

July 23, 2020

Today my medicine bag cord broke.

It happened after restless night, as I awoke

from tossing, turning over worry;

perhaps symbolic of doubt’s flurry.

I do not take it as the spirits’ rejection;

I take it as, upon my dawn reflection,

a message that I need a lot today:

to not let my spirit-connection fray.

— Carson Gardner

Balanced on a Fallen Log

March 2020

Crossing raging torrent,

balanced on a fallen log;

behind a distant, hungry howl,

before a thick-and-chilling fog.

The sun should break through any time,

show ahead a meadow; calm, serene.

Still, I teeter here through cloud and flood,

this moment blind to pleasant scene.

In a week, a month, a year, this angst

will fade in memory;

diminished for survivors,

and moot for those swept out to sea.

It doesn’t really matter now

how the sturdy bridge was missed.

Was it simply never built at all,

or deleted from mapmaker’s list?

I’m here, right now, in any case;

and that’s the one sure thing--

except, for those who wait behind,

a song of hope I sing.

Crossing raging torrent,

balanced on a fallen log,

I sing my hope to guide the way

beyond this lonely, dreadful slog.

My song may not sound beautiful,

but it does ring strong and sure;

come on, step up, don’t hesitate —

in line, together, we’ll endure.

— Carson Gardner

Looking back, looking ahead: Several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.