'I’ve learned that it’s OK to slow down, take time, and take a breath.' Lessons from the pandemic

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. NBA suspended its season. Tom and Rita Hanks tested positive for Covid-19.

Drastic changes went into effect a year ago, measures intended to limit exposure to this new and highly contagious disease. From flattening the curve to weathering second and third waves, Kentuckians were enlisted in the cause to prevent transmission.

How well we did in the fight against Covid-19 will be debated for some time. But the disease changed us all – in our behavior, attitudes, work life and family.

We asked nine residents of Northern Kentucky how the pandemic has changed them most. Here are their responses.

Lori Wagner, Hebron mother of 3
The pandemic has changed life dramatically in some ways, but so far, our family has remained healthy and we're able to see the positives. My husband is working from home for the foreseeable future, so we've been experiencing a lot more togetherness. I don't grocery shop like I used to, instead opting for curbside pickup to try to avoid crowded stores.

It's been a very different experience having a baby during a pandemic. I had to go to all my prenatal appointments alone after everything shut down and our 7-month-old baby hasn't experienced much of the outside world yet. Our older daughter is a freshman in high school and opted for virtual learning and she's thriving. Our middle-schooler was doing well with hybrid, in-person school and (is now handling) in-person four days a week. In-person schooling has us concerned about bringing the virus home to the family, so that's another layer of worry.

Timothy Gold, Independence artist
Initially, the shock of the pandemic and the fear associated with it caused a mental and emotional struggle that negatively impacted my creativity. My muse was gone.

Opportunities to sell artwork and mingle with fellow artists also affected my creativity. I searched for a way to establish the normalcy that was missing. The Purple Paisley Gallery in Covington provided this by inviting artists to sell their work in the gallery parking lot and to provide art demonstrations inside the gallery, while making the environment safe for artists and customers. These opportunities re-ignited my muse.

Kristin Steuber, owner of The Gruff restaurant
In addition to owning The Gruff with my husband, I have a part-time job at a hospital (health insurance benefits for my family) so I’ve had quite the perspective over the past year.

The one thing we decided very early in March 2020 was to take care of our people (family, employees and their family, and customers). Because we are a small family-owned establishment, we rely very much on our employees and they really showed up for us during the pandemic. To keep them and our customers safe, we chose to follow every CDC guideline and government mandate. It required lots of flexibility from us, our employees, and families, but I still credit our ability to remain in business over this year to that.

From day one of the pandemic impact, we remained open and honest with our communication to employees and customers. We were open to changing and being flexible when asked.

We’re doing OK, all things considered, and I think those two things were the most important factors to our success. Without our people we wouldn’t be The Gruff. 

Meredith Hargis, Holmes Middle School teacher
I’ve learned that it’s OK to slow down, take time, and take a breath. There are countless events from the past year that are hard to understand and hard to stomach, but it’s OK if it takes time to come to terms with new realities, new routines, and a “new normal.”

Doing your best some days might simply mean making it through the day, and it’s also normal to feel uncertain or anxious about the future because you most definitely are not alone.

Living through the events of 2020 itself was a historical accomplishment my students have achieved, so I now try to slow down more and breathe in the classroom as well. When the new school year began, I told myself if I can’t make kids feel safe, autonomous, and validated in my class then I don’t have any business being a teacher.

I want to teach them how to be informed citizens who can push through challenging times and use their voices for good. Learning history can be a source of hope for the future and can make students realize that the power to shape the future is in their own two hands.

Like Amanda Gorman said in her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” “There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

Even though the past year was difficult and tried to push us down, I have a renewed hope for the future that pushes back even harder.

Wallace LeMaster, Florence firefighter/paramedic
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, EMS care delivery allowed providers to provide face-to-face, hands-on care for the citizens during some of their most trying and stressful moments. However, Covid-19 required that all providers apply a socially distanced approach to the delivery of EMS care. Instead of meeting the citizens at the point of need, I now had to stop at the doorway to assess the risks associated with each encounter.

I had grown accustomed to seeing the emotions and responses of my patients through their body language and facial expressions. The masks that are necessary to protect us from the spread of this virus had become a barrier to the emotions and expressions displayed by our patients. These expressions allow us to fully evaluate the patient’s condition even when they cannot verbally communicate. How could I meet the needs of those most at risk while applying a socially distanced approach to emergency medical care?

For the first time in my career, I found a change that truly felt difficult to accept. For the first time in my career, I found myself becoming someone who feared change. I knew that to effectively serve our citizens, I knew I would have to embrace the mantra “adapt and overcome.”

I came to the realization that this virus could not be combated without some sacrifice. Each passing day allowed me to further accept the positive impact that was dealt by accepting our “new normal.”

I came to see that I was providing the best care by wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and being a model for the behaviors that can help to defeat this virus. I now understand that my actions and ability to accept change helped to prevent the further spread of the virus, thus protecting those who are most susceptible. These interactions offered opportunities to educate our citizens and promoted the behaviors required to cease the spread of the virus.

Kimberly Campbell, Florence hairdresser, One Sweet Salon
I worked in one of the most prestigious salon and spas in Northern Kentucky for almost the last 20 years. I was a very loyal employee; this was my family. I was comfortable growing within this company, but because of this pandemic they had to close their doors permanently. I put a lot of time and energy into my career with education and loyalty, but I never thought that I could run my own business. I was confident in being a cosmetologist. I was confident in educating students and apprentice stylists. I was “forced” into owning my own business due to these unforeseen circumstances. 

The pandemic has changed me in a positive way. It has reignited my passion for my profession (I do struggle with not seeing my clients smile and them not seeing mine due to the mandatory face coverings, which are necessary at this time).

This has been an emotional year in my industry. We are not essential employees and we have been looked down upon in certain aspects. We have been looked at as the “hired help” but we are more than that. As for me, I will continue to educate myself and remember that I love my career, my passion. I hope to continue to grow within my industry. I choose to look forward and will continue to try to make my clients feel beautiful.

Bobby Mackey, Wilder musician and club owner
2020 was a tough year. We were closed 21 weekends. We are open with restricted hours, 7 to midnight now and people are so ready to party. Most musicians are still having to struggle but we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This is America, we will survive!

Rev. Dr. Susan Ward Diamond, Senior Minister, Florence Christian Church
As we were learning more each day in March 2020 about the onset of what quickly became known as a deadly global pandemic, I knew that life as it had been known was going to change in big ways at home, as well as at work. My husband was suddenly out of work for the first time in his adult life.

My mother-in-law, who lives with us, if infected, would most likely die because of her ongoing health concerns. Our church, a close-knit community that so greatly values their relationships with one another and our church’s outreach to the community, was challenged like never before as we came to the realization that the best way to care for one another was to close our doors to on-campus gatherings. Our large childcare was shutdown. I was scared and anxious as I prayed for wisdom, strength, and direction.

What started out as an expectation of an eight-week shutdown has turned into a yearlong journey of learning to be patient, flexible, and creative in how we understand what being a church means.

We moved from on-campus to online worship, which became a lifeline to so many who wanted to remain connected to their church family. We were able to expand our worship community not only in our immediate area, but in 17 different states and seven countries around the world.

We focused on what we could do, and offered a huge expansion of our food ministries. Through fresh and stable produce distributions, an outdoor food pantry, and ministry to seniors at Arcadia Park, the church and its community partners have served thousands who are food insecure.

Though the challenges have been great and the toll of its impact leaves much to mourn, I have found a deeper faith in God and in God’s people than I had last year. I am grateful for the continuing lessons learned about living and loving my neighbor. We have a long way to go, but with God’s grace and love, we will continue to make the journey together.

Kris Knochelmann, Kenton County judge-executive
Whatever topic you want to bring up it seems like the pandemic has amplified – doubled or quadrupled – it. Like in my role as an elected official, everything from policymaking, budgets, state and federal policy efforts, quite frankly, fear, health concerns. For me it seems like everything has been amplified.

Even from a personal level of family and regular work, you know, the connections and the lack thereof have been amplified. Whereas I was spending “X” amount of time with my spouse and my kids, well, that has been dramatically increased, right? But on the other hand, the time away from my family, siblings and those who don't live with me has been further stripped away. Somebody we used to see once every couple of months now I might see them now once a year.

If there was a budget issue, a shortfall, well it's been expanded. If there is a revenue increase in some areas, well it's been expanded. If there is a fear in our community of death, well that's been dramatically expanded. So, it's like this world of this past year has been nothing but everything being amplified in a way that can be very unsettling and causes you to be even more focused on the fact that we all have to get back to basics -- our family our faith -- to wake up in the morning and connect and make a difference. And to stay calm and stay mindful.
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Read more articles by Nancy Daly.

Nancy Daly is a veteran Kentucky and Cincinnati journalist. An "Army brat" who found a home in Kentucky, she is a University of Kentucky graduate. Her hobbies include photography, rewatching "Better Call Saul" and "Succession," and playing the "Alphabet Game" on Zoom with six siblings across the globe.