MARK BENNETT: Former Sullivan doctor, health columnist sees a return to normalcy in New Zealand

Submitted photoFamiliar face: Dr. Norma Nehren wrote the “Ask the Doctor” column for the Tribune-Star for 11 years and formerly practiced medicine in Sullivan. Today, she lives and practices in New Zealand.

It’s funny how small the world is, and how history comes back around.

A search of the Tribune-Star’s online archives proved the validity of those clichés.

In researching background for another story, I came across perhaps this newspaper’s earliest reference to a coronavirus. It appeared in the “Ask the Doctor” column on June 19, 2003. Former Sullivan physician Dr. Norma Nehren wrote those columns for 11 years, answering readers’ medical questions. In that particular column, a reader wondered why it was taking so long for scientists to develop a vaccine for the SARS virus, which worldwide sickened 8,098 people and killed 774, according to the CDC.

After all, the SARS outbreak had been going on since that February. More than four months had passed, for cryin’ out loud.

Nehren explained in detail that SARS was a coronavirus, spread through coughs and sneezes, such viruses mutate rapidly and that developing vaccinations is “complex.”

She was right, as the world has learned in the past year. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic — exponentially more catastrophic than the 2003 SARS outbreak — has infected more than 109 million people globally, ending 2.4 million lives and upending billions of other lives. COVID vaccinations, created with astonishing speed, began reaching Wabash Valley residents in January, 11 months after the pandemic arrived. By contrast, the SARS outbreak faded by July 2003, before vaccines could be completed.

MARK BENNETT: Former Sullivan doctor, health columnist sees a return to normalcy in New Zealand

Mark Bennett

One country has repelled the COVID-19 coronavirus better than any, New Zealand. Ironically, that’s where Nehren has lived and practiced medicine for the past 14 years. Small world, indeed.

That Pacific island nation went under strict lockdown last March. Really strict. Its borders closed. Travel was restricted. Non-essential businesses closed. Social gatherings were banned. It’s paid off. New Zealand reopened its economy in June. Two-week quarantines for “Kiwis” — New Zealand residents — returning from abroad in hotels (initially funded by the government), limits on international visitors, thorough contact tracing and testing, and occasional lockdowns in affected localities have succeeded in preventing infections and deaths.

Just 2,340 cases and 26 deaths attributed to COVID-19 have occurred in that nation of 4.9 million people.

New Zealand, “stands out” in its approach to suppressing COVID-19, a Brookings Institution report stated last month. Normalcy, with vigilance, has returned there.

“Because our lockdown measures worked, we are able to live a normal life,” Nehren said by email this month. “We attend concerts, shows and sports events in large crowds, without masks. We can gather and travel inside the country without fear of infection. Our bars, restaurants, churches, schools, hospitals and clinics are doing business as usual.”

The initial lockdown wasn’t like that, at all. Even ventures into the ocean to swim, fish or boat were banned. Why? To prevent injuries that would require emergency crews to respond, Nehren explained. Only essential workers could travel to and from work. Otherwise, residents stayed inside.

“The streets were dead, the beaches empty and everyone was sheltering at home,” Nehren recalled. “It was eerie. And it worked.”

New Zealanders have largely abided by such policies imposed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government.

“I’ve been impressed with how united Kiwis are in protecting themselves and others by masking, social distancing and changing their plans whenever a COVID concern arises,” Nehren said.

That includes a brief, three-day lockdown this week in the nation’s largest city, Auckland. That city’s lockdown — the nation’s first in six months — was imposed after three family members tested positive for COVID-19, The Associated Press reported.

“We are hyper-vigilant about any community spread,” Nehren said. “And all it takes is [one individual] to test positive after leaving managed isolation to have us all kick back into gear with masks and restrictions on gatherings for a couple weeks. The few times this has happened, it has been a good reminder of how lucky we are here, [with] clean air, a cooperative feeling of personal responsibility, and caring for others.”

Nehren, her husband and daughter moved to New Zealand in 2007 to take a break from her hospital and clinical workload, including delivering babies. She joined a Maori Health Provider clinic in Kaitaia on the country’s north island, where the indigenous Maori comprise two-thirds of the population. Nerhen and her family fell “in love with the area and the people.” They stayed.

Fourteen years later, the clinic where Nehren serves as medical director has grown from a handful of doctors and 2,500 patients to a medical staff of 10 with 13,500 patients. The clinic also uses a mobile crew to help the community with smoking cessation, healthy eating, activities, social services and mental health. She trains international doctors, and takes her turn with after-hours urgent medical care.

“I have a passion for rural and remote medicine that fits where I am,” Nehren said. Her days in rural Indiana are fond memories. Some of the many babies she delivered in Sullivan are now grown up and are Facebook friends. Her new home is rural, too, with a South Pacific twist.

Recruiting doctors to the Kaitaia area is “relatively easy,” Nehren said, given the accessibility and coverage for patients through New Zealand’s nationally subsidized health-care system. Clinic visits cost $18. Lab tests and X-rays are free. Medications are $5, but free for kids.

And then there’s the scenery. The Ninety Mile Beach stretches along the coast from Ahipara, where Nehren lives. Its nickname is “A Never Ending Paradise,” and she sees it that way, too.

Nehren no longer writes columns, but thinks that 11-year stint as a columnist made her a better doctor. She remembers writing about SARS and coronavirus in that June 2003 column.

“I knew there was potential for viral mutations to take us by surprise, but I did not imagine a pandemic like the one we’ve had with COVID,” Nehren said. “That always seemed to be the stuff of my favorite science fiction novels, not real life.”

Through this crisis, she’s studied the 1918 flu pandemic and is shocked at the similarities but also touched by the compassion shown toward the vulnerable in both cases.

New Zealand has avoided the worst impacts of COVID-19, though it’s tourism-based economy has taken a hit. For now, the country remains at its Level-1 response, the least restrictive, yet poised to respond to virus upticks. It “basically means the borders are closed and surveillance for new cases continues, but otherwise life is pretty much back to normal,” Nehren said.

“There might even be a bit of survivor’s guilt on our part when watching the news about the rest of the world’s struggles with COVID,” she added, “and we are all hoping for the pandemic to end.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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