by Dora Anne Mills, MD, MPH
Originally published Sunday, May 22, 2022

I was on a regular appearance on Maine Calling this last week (a Maine Public Radio show) with my friend and colleague from Northern Light Health, Dr. Jim Jarvis, to answer questions about the pandemic. A woman called and said she was vaccinated, is masking, and has pretty much stayed home for over two years. Yet everyone she knows taking similar precautions seems to be contracting COVID-19 anyway. She said she’s feeling hopeless.

Jim and I reiterated that the pandemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. After all, it continues to transmit widely among humans and non-human animals, and in doing so, it also continues to mutate. We don’t currently know how to predict mutations and their impacts — if they will make the virus more or less contagious or virulent, or strengthen its ability to evade immunity.

Dora Anne Mills, MD

COVID tools that inspire hope

However, the reason for optimism is we now have the tools to co-exist with it, including:

~ High-quality masks (e.g., N95s and KN95s) when there are surges
~Testing (including home tests)
~Outpatient treatments when given early after symptom onset in order to prevent more serious illness and hospitalization
~Ventilation/filtration (including gathering with loved ones outdoors when the weather is good).

Dora Anne Mills, MD

Challenges we face

However, I quickly realized that I completely missed the caller’s point. She was really referring to hope, and not so much a technical question about pessimism or optimism on the future of the pandemic.

I share her concerns. There are days when I find it very hard to maintain hope. For instance, there are days I can’t digest the news. It’s too overwhelming. Between terrorism and gun violence, a war in Ukraine that threatens to become nuclear, daily evidence about mounting climate change, the assault on reproductive and sexual healthcare, the rise in hatred fueling more racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, threats to our democracy, and the pandemic, it’s easy to lose hope. I have my distractions, and in the spring that includes enjoying my garden. But even my daffodils only bloomed for such a short time when it was 90 degrees, before a frost got to them.

Dora Anne Mills, MD

Lessons in hope from the past

I’m often reminded of my parents’ generation, who endured years of overwhelming turmoil and were part of the Greatest Generation. I gain strength in reflecting on the stories they shared. My mother grew up in northern Aroostook County (“The County” as it’s known in Maine) on a potato farm. When the Great Depression hit, like many farmers, her parents struggled to make ends meet. In the mid-1930s, my mother was called home from college. She was needed on the farm. She eventually graduated, and several years later, her life was more settled. She married my father in 1941, and they started putting down roots in his hometown of Farmington. But a few months later, America was at war, and my father was sent by the Navy to fight in the Pacific.

My mother rarely discussed the challenges of those years. But from glimpses of conversations, I could hear there was a strong sense of loss of much of the family farm during those years and over the disruption of college. There was apprehension about whether my father would survive the war, and whether the country as we knew it would endure. After all, we were at war in Europe as well as in Asia. She gave birth to two of my brothers during those years, and the prospects of being a war widow in a town she was a stranger in were grim.

What did she commonly discuss about those years? She talked about playing cards with her parents and her younger sister during the time she worked at home on the farm during the disruption of her college years, and what wonderful conversations she had with them as a young adult. Those conversations — about things they hadn’t talk about when she was a child — planted seeds of resilience. They read books and discussed them. Some were provocative, some were classical poetry. They discussed finances, marriage, family history, religion, and spirituality. They took walks down to the river and up Haystack Mountain in the summer. They went for a horse ride at night during a gentle snow. And importantly, they helped others who were worse off. Unfortunately, there was no scarcity of the latter.

During the war years in my father’s hometown, she made several endearing relationships. She was a stranger, but she was able to connect with some other women, whose husbands were also fighting in the war, who also had young children, and who also were facing a very uncertain future. They leaned on and nurtured each other during the stormy times. One of them was also a stranger to Farmington, though with prominent in-laws living there. They gave birth to children around the same time. Then one day, this friend learned her husband had been killed in the war. This tragic news sent shock waves across the community. The two remained close, helping each other out, and a few years later, my mother even named my sister after her. But eventually, the friend returned to her home area out West, remarried, and over the years they lost touch. My mother was always grateful to this friend and other friends she made during the war years. By the time my father returned, my mother no longer felt like a stranger in his hometown.

What I learned from my mother’s stories was the value of friendships, of getting out into nature, of helping others, and of seeking assistance and comfort, including spiritual help. Our relationships with each other, with nature, and our spirituality are some of the nutrients that can sustain us. And most importantly, they help us to never lose hope.

Dora Anne Mills, MD

The value of therapy

We also have a very valuable additional tool that my parents’ generation did not have or did not have easy access to. That tool is therapy — talk therapy. Especially during tumultuous times, it’s not uncommon to feel hopeless. If those feelings are impacting your daily life and functions, it’s time to consider therapy. The amazing thing is that these days, you can access therapy at home via your phone or computer through telehealth. If your home lacks privacy, in Maine you can go to some libraries where there are computers set up in private spaces for telehealth. You can talk with your PCP (your primary care provider, or doctor) about a good therapist. Many Maine-based therapists do telehealth. There are also therapists available online from all over the country through several companies. Links to more info are below. I’ve used a therapist several times in my life, and have always found it beneficial. Therapy has aided me to get unrooted from a set of emotions or other barriers to decision-making that have kept me from blossoming. It has also helped me to seek different nutrients for me to flourish.

Recently, in a small way, I started getting more engaged trying to help with some of the asylum seekers living in southern Maine, realizing that I needed to do as my mother did — help others, even I feel sometimes like I don’t have the time or the energy or the emotional resilience to do so. After all, helping others in many ways is a form of therapy. It is good fertilizer for growing hope. As part of this endeavor, I visited a couple of the hotels in southern Maine where a number of asylum seekers are living. There, I saw mostly young adults with young children. They are strangers in my home state, struggling to get planted and put down some roots. They shared that their biggest desire is to work. With language differences, it’s often hard to learn what brought them here, but I know many had good jobs, are highly-educated, and are fluent in several languages. With Maine’s dwindling workforce (with the highest percentage in the country of those 65 and older, and one of if not the lowest birth rates in the country for a number of years), it’s striking to me how much they can help us out. I also realize they must have endured tremendous stress to leave their home. Indeed, reading about conflicts in such countries as the Congo, Angola, and Gabon, where many of them are from, the reports of human rights violations and violence are chilling.

Dora Anne Mills, MD

Planting seeds of hope

The other day I was talking with a woman who works for a nonprofit that assists asylum seekers to gain their footing in Maine. At the end of the conversation, I asked her about her last name, and if she had a connection with Farmington. She smiled and said, “yes, my grandfather was from there. However, he was killed in WWII. My grandmother lived there for a while with her two young children, one of them my father, and then she returned to her home out West”. My eyes welted, as I said, “your grandmother and my mother were best friends during the war years, they helped each other out during those unsettling times, and my sister was named after her.” We then chatted excitedly about family and our common Farmington roots. Although she grew up elsewhere, she returned to her grandfather’s home state, and is now working with New Mainers, helping them to settle.

Even during the most challenging of times, we must never lose hope. We never know what seeds we are planting, some of which may bloom in the spring, and some maybe not for many springs.

Dora Anne Mills, MD

Talk therapy resources