Open Letter to Kristi Noem

Dear Kristi,

I haven’t seen you for a while. Our last encounter was last September when the Madison area was dealing with what I believe was called a 500-year flood. I was in the Emergency Operations Center. Calling me by name, you asked how I had been affected. I told you my ice cream was melting because I was without power. You suggested we go eat it.

Of course, since you are now courting the national spotlight, it’s not surprising you no longer have time for the local media. My stories won’t launch your political career to new heights. Considering how you have mishandled the COVID pandemic in South Dakota, I personally hope you discover that in seeking national attention, you’ve made a tragic misstep and you soon find yourself floundering like a fish out of water, struggling for political life the way I struggle for breath as I write this.

Does that sound melodramatic? At least it’s honest. I don’t pull some less than credible study out of my hat and lie not only to the people of South Dakota, but to the whole nation. The science on masks is not mixed. The science on masks is clear. They make a difference. I know your political idol, a man who claims to be a business genius but actually managed to bankrupt a casino, has encouraged folks not to wear masks, but he has not studied infectious diseases and he has not listened to experts in the field.

While you have simply failed to act appropriately, have failed to promote masks and social distancing, he has sabotaged the nation’s response to the pandemic. But, of course, you already know this and don’t care. Standing with him has resulted in the kind of contacts and donations you covet — and need if you are going to launch your career onto the national stage. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart,” and it’s clear your heart is not with the people of South Dakota. Your heart is with the political operatives who promise to make your dreams come true.

If this sounds personal, Kristi, good! Because since we last talked, I’ve been battling Stage III cancer. It’s been a rough journey. I had a bad reaction to one of the drugs in the standard chemo cocktail, and had to take a fairly significant doses of dexamethasone to tolerate the alternative used. The side effects were grueling and I had to cope alone because of the pandemic. While we did not get a cure, the chemo knocked back the cancer and my oncologist was pleased. He said the results were better than he had expected when we started.

Now, I am on immunotherapy. Every three weeks, I get an infusion and every nine weeks, I get a CT scan. These days I shudder just thinking about the CT scans because the iodine in the two pints of water I must drink tastes metallic and leaves an aftertaste that lasts for hours, tainting the flavor of anything I eat or drink. But, it’s a necessary evil.

Because I am immunocompromised, I’ve been self-isolating since the first community spread in South Dakota. With two exceptions, I have worn a mask whenever I’ve been indoors with others present. Twice, since resuming in-person interviews, I have forgotten to grab my mask from my purse before entering a building where others were present — twice in six months. I have eaten in a restaurant once — and only because I had scheduled my car for routine maintenance after a CT scan, which means I hadn’t been able to eat for hours and was hungry. Had the outdoors tables not been full, I would have eaten outdoors. I’ve only entered one business on a regular basis — the local grocery store about every two weeks, always wearing a mask.

My point, Kristi, is this — I have been taking precautions. But the people around me have not. When I go to the grocery store, few people are wearing masks. When I cover a county commission meeting, only one or two others in the room is wearing a mask. When I do in-person interviews, few volunteer to wear a mask and some think it’s odd that I do until I explain I have cancer.

Unfortunately, my mask protects others. They are doing nothing to protect me, thanks to your poor leadership. You have managed a public health crisis as though it were a political issue, and failed to provide the kind of leadership we have needed. I’m not saying you should have closed businesses. I am saying you should have advocated wearing masks, limited gatherings, and worked to creatively address the economic ramifications rather than relying on an easy answer — increase tourism.

Because of your poor leadership, I’m sleeping in a recliner so that I can breathe, wearing my warmest pajamas and swaddling myself in blankets even though I have the thermostat set at 75 because I have the chills, and am suffering with a severe headache that OTC medications don’t break. I have a low-grade fever and runny nose. The possibility exists that I have a cold, but the bread I was baking earlier this week burned and I didn’t smell it — not the bread, not the burning.

I won’t know until next week whether I do have COVID. I was tested yesterday. The nurse, dressed as though she were dealing with a hazmat situation, was clearly unhappy with being asked to swab yet another nose. She dealt with it in a perfunctory manner, and my nasal passages are still sore from the experience. I don’t know if she was unnecessarily forceful or if that is the way the test is routinely conducted. I do know that in a year filled with blood draws and medical procedures, that test was memorable.

So, Kristi, the next time you see me, don’t try to pretend we’re friends. You have demonstrated with your callous disregard for human life that I am nothing to you. If I die, you won’t care one iota more than you have cared for the hundreds of families who have already lost loved ones to COVID or the thousands who suffer as I do.

You, Kristi Noem, don’t care about South Dakota or South Dakotans. You, Kristi Noem, care about being in the spotlight and you will sacrifice all of us if that will give you a few more minutes of fame. Shame on you.


Mary Gales Askren