COVID in rural America: Farmers, Ranchers are susceptible, too |

COVID in rural America: Farmers, Ranchers are susceptible, too

Gene Dubas recovers, rural healthcare workers say masks help but Americans should decide for themselves


Gene Dubas was on his way to Amarillo, Texas for a trade show, to exhibit chutes and cattle equipment when he just didn’t feel good.

It was November 9, and he’d had a fever that morning. A cold shower lowered his temperature but he still didn’t feel good. So he stopped for a quick COVID-19 test, knowing if he had it, he didn’t want to give the virus to anyone else.

The test came back positive, so he headed back home to Fullerton, Neb., where his two businesses: Dubas Cattle and Dubas Equipment, are located.

For the next week, he didn’t feel good and hurt all over, with terrible headaches. His temperature would be in the 104 degree range, but he stayed home, thinking it would go away.

Then, on Nov. 16, he couldn’t take it anymore. His son drove him to the emergency room in Albion, Neb., where they put him on oxygen. Two days later, a visiting pulmonologist read his lung x-rays and recommended he go to a bigger hospital that had access to COVID-19 survivor plasma and antibodies and a high flow oxygen machine.

Dubas gave the thumbs up, and he was life-flighted to a hospital in Hastings, Neb.

He had stressed to the Albion hospital staff that he did not want to go on a ventilator, after having a bad experience with one after a trauma accident in 2013.

He told the helicopter team the same thing. They listened, but Dubas sensed he may not have much choice in mid-flight.

On the flight, the tight quarters in the helicopter bothered him, and he told that to the male nurse. The nurse, to put him at ease, asked Dubas what he did for a living. When the nurse disclosed that his parents owned a feedlot in northeastern Neb., Dubas realized he had delivered a chute to them in April. The two visited throughout the forty-minute flight, which caused his oxygen levels to be better than when they had left Albion.

In Hastings, he was in ICU for nine days. Out of those nine days, he spent nearly every waking minute using the spirometer, the plastic instrument used to check the depth of a person’s breathing. Dubas had had experience with one, and knew that his ticket out of the hospital was how well his lungs performed. “All I did in my spare time was blow on that thing and blow on that thing,” he recalled. “Believe me, it hurt like hell to blow in that. You have plenty of time to think about living or dying and you have plenty of time to make that choice.” The doctor commented several times that Dubas’ work ethic of using his spirometer helped his lungs improve and helped him get better.

On Thanksgiving Day, November 26, he was released, ten days after his son took him to the Albion hospital.

The virus isn’t partial to rural or city folk, and even though it may seem there are fewer cases of it in rural America, it’s present and stressing the medical staff at hospitals and clinics.

Dr. Michele Mulligan-Witt, a private practice physician in Valentine, Neb., knows that. “It is here,” she says of the virus, “in rural America. And (some) ag people don’t take it seriously.”

Her patient load slowed down during COVID’s first months, to slow the spread, and now she focuses on not letting the hospital get overwhelmed.

Wearing masks does help, she said. They aren’t a panacea, as the virus can get through the cloth, but they slow down the virus or lessen its strength.

Mulligan-Witt believes the virus has been politicized, which doesn’t help, either. “We need to be kind and respectful of others,” she said. She has social distanced and wears her mask to prevent herself from spreading the virus to her other patients.

Ag people might be less likely to get tested if they have the virus, and that’s unfortunate, from a public health standpoint, Witt said, but the tests aren’t always accurate, either.

Common sense needs to be used, she said. “If you’re sick, stay home and stay away from people who are high risk. If you want to know if you have it, get tested.”

Ag people are not any more or less susceptible to the virus, but they are naturally more socially isolated, and tend to be “tougher,” thinks Nick Schwedhelm, a nurse at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Schwedhelm, who lives in Ft. Calhoun with his wife and son, has no hard evidence, he said, but “people in the ag community are very hardy with amazing work ethics. I don’t think (ag) people go home if they have a cold or fever. They do the hard jobs.”

Nick Schwedhelm, a nurse, bareback rider and cattle producer, gets the COVID-19 vaccine. The emotions in the clinic among staff on the first day the vaccine was given were uplifting and joyous, he said. Photo courtesy Nick Schwedhelm

He and wife Mikayla wear masks when in public, and they’ve gotten stares and snickers in their small town north of Omaha, “and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “I think there is a slower adaptation to mask wearing (in rural areas) for sure.”

To him, wearing masks is a simple, inexpensive solution. He’s heard people say that if the hospitals are full and medical staff is overworked, there should be more hospitals built and more staff trained. “Where does that money come from?” he asked. “You give up a cheap and easy solution (mask wearing) in opposition for health care and the government in contemplating a shutdown.”

Part of the reason that medical staff is overworked during the pandemic is that everything takes longer with the virus. “You have to follow protocol when people show up,” Schwedhelm said. “If they have any complaint of upper respiratory, cough, cold, or have traveled, that person has to go to a room and be isolated. The nurse has to gown up, put on their mask, face shield, gloves, and has to have their supplies with them, or they can’t come back out. You go in, take care of them, figure out how sick they are, and then take vitals. It takes a lot more time to care for somebody,” he said. And if the patient needs imaging, x-rays or scans, that person has to be transported to the correct room and yet kept in a closed system so they’re not spreading the virus.

Schwedhelm, who is also a bareback rider raising beef cattle and working on a doctorate, said the year has been tough. Before the virus, coworkers would pass in the hallway, “smiling, happy to be at work, and in February, it went to worried and upset and scared faces,” he said. “The virus took its toll on people mentally.”

Nick Schwedhelm prepares to work cattle on the family farm near Ft. Calhoun, Neb. A nurse, he has worked at the Nebraska Medical Center and seen the worst of the COVID-19 cases. Photo courtesy Nick Schwedhelm

When he got the vaccine on Dec. 17, he said the atmosphere in the clinic among staff members was “uplifting. There was an energy in the room that was amazing to witness. The staff was joyful, people were laughing, it was like, this is really happening.”

Witt’s husband, a rancher, has told his wife that when the vaccine is available, she should get it. “He said, you get that vaccine so we can get back to work.” As a physician, she’s studied the vaccines and feels they are safe. “But just like the coronavirus, there are unknowns. The benefits definitely outweigh the risks, in allowing this country to get back to work and back on track.”

Schwedhelm shared an analogy for those who believe the vaccine isn’t safe. On December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, 2,403 Americans died. Within a year, Schwedhelm pointed out, the U.S. manufactured ships, planes, arms and ammunition for war against Japan. “On December 9, 2020, 3,157 Americans died of COVID,” he said. “Did our soldiers in World War II say the ships were cranked out in a hurry, so I’m not going to trust them? They did the hard thing, and the greatest generation fought the battle. I think that not trusting the vaccine is the same thing as not trusting American innovation. A bad thing happened (with the Pearl Harbor bombing) and America rose to the challenge. And we’re doing the same thing here.”

Schwedhelm said teams from the bio containment unit at the Nebraska Medical Center have been sent to every beef processing plant, school and ag business who requests them, to help them keep their doors open. “I don’t want people to look at healthcare as the people who mandate that you wear a mask, get a shot, and force your business to close. We are the ones who are trying to keep your doors open and keep our costs of fighting this thing to a minimum while keeping the economic machine turning.”

Dubas says the virus “is real. Respect it.” He doesn’t believe businesses should be shuttered, however. “We can’t stop the world from continuing on because of this.”

Dr. Mulligan-Witt and Schwedhelm don’t believe mask wearing should be mandatory, either.

“I don’t think it’s our government or health care’s place to say you should wear a mask,” Schwedhelm said. “But you should be able to recognize they are a common sense, affordable means of breaking the chain of infection.”

Mulligan-Witt said, “I think masks are a good idea but I don’t believe in making it mandatory. You can live your life, in a way that you are being cautious of others, and still live your life.”

Dubas takes the virus seriously, even though he has friends that laugh it off. “I about died, honestly,” he said. “It’s real. When you can’t find your next breath, it’s real.”


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