MOORHEAD, Minn. — 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.

"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.

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.

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Dr. Carson Gardner is medical director for the White Earth Public Health Department and ambulance service. (Dan Gunderson / MPR News 2019)
Dr. Carson Gardner is medical director for the White Earth Public Health Department and ambulance service. (Dan Gunderson / MPR News 2019)

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 last week, the White Earth Reservation has reported more than 600 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.

White Earth Health Center in the village of White Earth. (Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020)
White Earth Health Center in the village of White Earth. (Monika Lawrence for MPR News 2020)

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.

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."