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  • Dan Connors

Look for the helpers. Better yet, be one.

The Helpers: Profiles from the Front Lines of the Pandemic

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

― Fred Rogers

The Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 was a novel, surprising event that caught an entire world off guard, and continues to surprise us. Most of those alive had never had to deal with a potentially deadly disease rapidly spreading through communities, and Covid-19 brought out both the best and worst of humanity in its wake. Unfortunately, most of what we saw on television was the worst part- people throwing tantrums about wearing masks, politicians and pundits that tried to make the disease political for their own gains, and social media and alternative television that readily spread fake cures and disinformation about the pandemic in the search for clicks and viewers. A scary disease that no one quite knows how to handle is much less interesting than a conspiracy of Chinese scientists and wealthy elites trying to pull one over on us.

But the pandemic brought so many more good stories of bravery, selflessness, and love that rarely got told. This book, The Helpers, tells some of those stories. Wonderful, admirable people including first responders, medical professionals, essential workers, and scientists are the real story of the pandemic, and by recognizing them we honor their service and sacrifice. Humans are unfortunately wired to give preference to negative information- a throwback to the days on the savannah when ignoring bad news meant death. But with so much bad news out there now, giving preference to good news and inspiring stories is just as important for mental and spiritual survival today.

Kathy Gilsinan is a St. Louis-based writer for the Atlantic, and this is her first book. She profiles six extraordinary individuals and how the pandemic brought out the best of them. The book covers three sections denoting the beginning, middle, and end of the pandemic and you get to follow each person as things go from bad to worse.

- There's the retired firefighter Paul Cary who drove from Colorado to New York city during the first deadly wave of the pandemic. He was a volunteer who transported deathly ill Covid patients from one overcrowded hospital to lesser crowded ones, eventually getting Covid himself and dying.

- Hamilton Bennett tells her story of how she and Moderna came to develop one of the first Covid vaccines, taking on a new technology and plenty of financial risk at the start of the pandemic. The process that normally takes years was completed in less than one, and countless lives were saved by the vaccine developers who found ways around the virus and its deadly capabilities.

- Chris Kiple was the CEO of a small ventilator company called Ventec. When the pandemic caused extreme damage to lungs, ventilators became essential and also in critically short supply. Kiple and his team built a new factory from scratch that made precious life-saving ventilators, while automobile maker General Motors turned out to be a surprising hero in his story.

- Michelle Gonzalez tells the harrowing story of what it was like to be a nurse in the front lines of the pandemic. Nurses are the true heroes of this book, as they risked exposure to a deadly disease to make sure that their patients had a chance. Nurses had to deal with terrible shortages of medicines and protective equipment, and they had to watch helplessly as the virus claimed patient after patient, including some of the hospital staff as well. And at the end of her story she has a few things to say about a hospital management that fell short during the crisis.

- Nikkia Rhodes was just 23 when the pandemic began- a chef and schoolteacher in a poor area of Louisville. She remarkably stepped up to help her students, and then opened up a community kitchen in an area where so many families had been hit hard by hunger and unemployment. And she did this all while racial protests consumed Louisville in the wake of Breonna Taylor's tragic shooting.

- And finally there's the story of Huy Le, one of the first victims of the virus from California, and how he tried to understand what was happening to him while worrying about his sick mother, who eventually died alone from Covid. Le went into a coma and relied on a ventilator to keep him alive, but he survived, and you see the disease through his eyes.

Stories make the abstract seem more real, and to read these stories and see the bravery of those who lived them is much more inspiring than what we saw on the news and on social media during the pandemic. The Covid epidemic wasn't a conspiracy, and there's no one to blame but ourselves and Mother Nature for its deadly toll. Many precious lives were lost, and many foolish things were said and done. But in the end the helpers found us a vaccine, kept society going, and did what needed to be done. As the author puts it:

“In place of victory is ongoing struggle, never finished, never enough. You can never save enough people, you can never make or distribute a vaccine fast enough or convince enough people to take it, you can never feed all of the hungry. But there are people who look those odds in the eye and try anyway.”

I think of these six people as I read the news from the latest tragedy- the war in Ukraine. Terrible, senseless things have happened there, but most of the Ukrainian people have stepped up to help each other and combat the enemy that tries to destroy them. When the Blitz hit Great Britain during World War II, the citizens of London and beyond stepped up and helped each other survive another day. There's a strong instinct inside humanity to be a helper, but it fights against the demons of selfishness and fear all of the time. Reading a book like this makes my dramas seem pretty small by comparison and makes me want to help more and complain less.

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