Andrea Carlstrom, director of Public Health, on a ‘wild, surreal’ pandemic ride, optimism & gratitude, and finding love on a Phish tour
(Publication Date: 3.21.23)
n this episode of the We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast, host Adam Williams talks with Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County (Colorado) Public Health.
Andrea and Adam reflect on the recent past, with the three-year mark of the first COVID case noted in Chaffee County in mind. During the time that would follow, Andrea lived not only her own version of what everyone experienced with the pandemic, she also felt heavy responsibilities and stresses as director of Public Health responding to a health crisis in the face of political and social division. That included receiving politically motivated threats to her safety and calls for her removal as director of Public Health.
Adam talks with Andrea about what motivated her to persevere and continue serving the community, rather than walking away for her own well-being, as her loved ones at times urged her to do. They also talk about free-spirit Andrea, who tells about her New England upbringing, shares her love of jam band music, and her story of meeting her husband on a Phish tour.
SHOW NOTES, LINKS, CREDITS & TRANSCRIPT
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Departments of Public Health and Housing, and is supported by the Colorado Public Health & Environment: Office of Health Disparities.
Along with being distributed on popular podcast listening platforms (e.g. Spotify, Apple), Looking Upstream is broadcast weekly at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, on KHEN 106.9 community radio in Salida, Colo., and can be listened to on-demand via khen.org.
We Are Chaffee
Looking Upstream Host & Photographer: Adam Williams
Looking Upstream Engineer & Producer: Jon Pray
We Are Chaffee Community Advocacy Coordinator: Lisa Martin
We Are Chaffee Graphic and Web Design: Heather Gorby
Director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment: Andrea Carlstrom
Note: Transcripts are produced using a transcription service. Although it is largely
accurate, minor errors inevitably exist.
[Intro music, guitar instrumental]
Adam Williams: Welcome to We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, a conversational podcast of humanness based in Chaffee County, Colorado. I'm Adam Williams. Today I'm talking with Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health.
(00:21): We've just passed the three-year mark of the first COVID case in Chaffee County, Colorado. It's a dubious milestone for sure, but there's no better person to take us through it than Andrea. We've all had our own life-changing experiences with the COVID pandemic, we all know that. To be candid, I think I would be just fine if we never used that word again, and I would guess that I'm not alone in that.
But Andrea held a singular vantage point for the past three years of that pandemic experience, which she describes as a wild, dynamic, surreal ride. And she's absolutely right that if we don't take this time to reflect on the experience and to grow from it individually as families, as a community and far beyond societally, we will miss valuable opportunities to heal and move forward in a better light and to take part in a great reconnection as she calls it.
(01:11): So in this conversation, Andrea and I do some reflecting on the recent past. And true to Andrea's nature, she shines with optimism and gratitude and she shares what her experience as director of the county's response to the crisis was like. Again, as much as she was having her own version of what we all experienced, she also had an experience with extremes that none of the rest of us here did.
I can't even imagine the endless hours and the overwhelming stress of doing what she did under those conditions and for so long, or doing all of it while facing politically motivated threats to her safety and defamation of her character. Truly for almost all of us, I think that has to be unimaginable, yet Andrea stuck with it and she persevered through it all.
(01:57): I asked her why she didn't walk away like her loved ones at times urged her to do. I asked her about what she learned along the way and how she looks back on the experience now that we are, to a large extent, on the other side of it. Andrea shares some great insights on all that, but it's not all we talk about.
She tells a bit about her New England upbringing and she shares her love of jam band music and the story of meeting her husband on a Phish tour. In short, we talk about free spirit Andrea, the fun-loving person behind the public health leadership and advocacy hats that she wears, not just the government employee that guided us through arguably the most challenging period of our lives.
(02:36): As always, show notes and the transcript from today's conversation are posted at wearechaffee.org. You can learn more there after listening. And if you are listening to this show on your podcast player like Apple or Spotify, you can rate and comment on the show and help us to spread the good of what we're doing here, connecting through conversations. Now, here we go, me talking with Andrea Carlstrom.
Adam Williams (03:12): Hi Andrea, welcome to Looking Upstream.
Andrea Carlstrom (03:14): Thanks for having me.
Adam Williams (03:16): So we are coming up on a three-year anniversary of particular note for all of us here in Chaffee County and you have a particular role as director of Chaffee County Public Health that makes this a special story, I think, that you have to share today. So thank you for coming in and being willing to share it. Let me now start with asking you what's on your mind as we approach this three year milestone of... And I'll let you fill in the blank and take it away.
Andrea Carlstrom (03:43): Well, I believe you are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic in which you're right. March 20th, 2020, we saw our first case of COVID-19 here in this county. Three years later it has been a wild dynamic surreal ride, and yet here we are talking about it and reflecting upon what took place over the last three years and how we have done our own self-reflection and have managed both personally and professionally this, what I hope to be, a once in a lifetime event for our entire planet.
Adam Williams (04:24): I think that we have felt... Yeah, if I can put the words in the mouths of everyone listening and maybe even you, I think we have struggled with feeling exhausted by this experience that is just so significant, and yet here we are at three years later and I think it kind of feels like, "Okay, maybe now is a time that we can start to go ahead and have this kind of conversation."
How do you feel about where we are in the process of our self-reflection and our processing of our own experiences and our collective experiences and to be willing to bring up the word COVID and pandemic, which I think... I don't know. Prior to this, I might have just been like, "Just get me anywhere away from that word."
Andrea Carlstrom (05:08): Right. Well, I fully recognize that at this stage living with COVID in our lives for three years and most likely indefinitely, I recognize that our society is "over it." And rightfully so, I really reflect upon the last three years and kind of break down the various chapters of our lives living with the pandemic that I think helps us digest and unpack and hopefully heal from what has been a very challenging time no matter who you are and what you do personally and professionally.
(05:48): I think that that first stage I've been reflecting a lot was really about saving lives. We were in such an extraordinarily uncertain time in which we were seeing people die from this novel virus. We had to put into place some very difficult measures to protect the people that we love and sometimes the people that we didn't even know for the common good. And so really looking at that first stage as being the prevention, mitigation, saving lives.
I think that that first stage really did set the course for what was an event that created a wedge in our society and certainly in our own community, followed up by a next chapter of the great mass vaccination, right? We finally had a life-saving measure that was science-based that we really felt confident about implementing. I think at that stage we were really hoping that that would sort of end the pandemic. And then I think we faced a stage of disillusionment when that didn't quite happen the way that we thought it would look like.
(07:10): And then now in the stage that we're in, I really look at the stage as the great reconnection. We lost a lot during that two, two and a half year time period, and this is the time for us to share our stories, to unite us to hopefully heal from what was and what continues to be for a very traumatizing event. And so here we are without much fanfare or celebration. However, I do think it's really important to share the story because if I don't, from my perspective, it's almost as though it never happened and that's not fair.
Adam Williams (07:54): And you have a special perspective. Again as director of Chaffee County Public Health, I would say it's a very singular perspective. Only one person was in that seat, only one person had the pressures and responsibilities that you had. I know that that was rough in ways that to whatever extent you feel like sharing that today that many of us have no idea what you personally were going through in trying to serve the community with the best of information, science, and personal intentions. What have you been reflecting about in that sense from that very unique position that you were in, the ups and downs, the stresses? I don't know. We're going to get into I think a lot of things here, so I'll just get out of your way. What's on your mind?
Andrea Carlstrom (08:47): Well, it was certainly a rollercoaster that I couldn't get out of. Although I hoped and prayed and dreamt that at one point that sort of nightmare would end, it didn't. I think about natural disasters. Let's take a wildfire for example. Oftentimes for a long-term wildfire event, you have an incident commander, a subject matter expert who comes in for two weeks and in a very intense situation and then rotates out.
And someone else, another subject matter expert comes in and takes the lead. And come to find out in a multi-year pandemic, that luxury isn't given to certain professionals in our community and in our country and the way that it's organized today. And so while living a rollercoaster, I will also say that it has taught me a lot and I have grown personally and professionally and I've found strength and resilience that I didn't even know I possessed.
Adam Williams (09:59): I am always interested in the conversations I have with people, and that of course includes here on this podcast with, well, what did you learn from this experience? How did you cultivate some sort of light in the midst of what might have been a very traumatic or very difficult experience? Resilience.
There's all kinds of angles we can go with this. But what I want along with you sharing whatever is relevant there, my understanding is that you received even threats, that you were publicly treated in certain ways that I would've very much understood if you felt like you needed to step away. Do you care to get into any of that? Is it okay to share some of that and let people know exactly some of these things that you were having to deal with while trying to protect and take care of all of us?
Andrea Carlstrom (10:49): Most definitely. Well, prior to the pandemic, I always said, if your public health director is in an incident command position, it is not a good day. And come to find out, it was not a good many days. And what I will say is that despite the toxicity and despite at times the hatred that people even in our own backyard felt regarding how the pandemic was being handled and how our response was rolled out, I feel like they were not shining the brightest.
They were having their darkest days. While many of my peers had were to resign, they were fired, they retired early, there was a cohort of us that bonded together and stuck together and rolled up our sleeves knowing that this too shall pass maybe a little bit longer than we had anticipated.
(11:55): I chose to focus on the light in our community. Many times I was live on Facebook or at town halls or being interviewed. I really chose to focus on the positive attributes of our community, the generosity, the care, the kindness, knowing that behind the scenes there were people creating Facebook pages wanting to fire me and defaming my character and forgetting that I too am a human being here in this community that wakes up every day wanting to do my best and wanting to do it with empathy and compassion and integrity.
When those threats were being made, it was a personal attack on who I am as a person, it was a personal attack on my family and my friends who know that I truly, truly care about our community and fiercely loyal and loving of my community, my friends, my family, and my neighbors.
Adam Williams (13:07): Do you feel like things have calmed down compared to the height of that sort of intense reaction to what you were trying to do in service and what other people as well, throughout politics, throughout government, throughout all forms of leadership, were trying too to sustain and maintain wellbeing of us as a community, as a county, as a nation, as a globe of people, a world? Do you feel like things I've improved at least, even though we obviously can still point to certain things and say, "Wow, that wedge you referred to, it's still there"? Do you feel safer, calmer, more empowered to continue with your work now?
Andrea Carlstrom (13:54): I want to believe that. I want to see the best in our community and in our society. While I know we have a lot of work to do, I think we all need to listen to each other and where each other is coming from and hopefully be a better society and community because of that.
Adam Williams (14:13): Okay. I am curious for your experience as a person considering the role that you have professionally, I guess you can't really separate those completely, but who or what did you fall back on, lean on, get support from? What kept you from just walking away and saying, "I can't take this anymore"?
Andrea Carlstrom (14:34): Gosh, that's a great question. There's so many things. I mean, first and foremost, I think about my husband, my greatest rock that I could ever imagine. We have never gone through something like as intense as a pandemic together, let alone in the role that I was in. It was the day-to-day things, right? Like making sure I was fed, making sure I paid my bills, that I got to the office safe and sound. Sometimes escorted, right? Because there were threats at one point that made me fear my safety and made my husband fear my safety.
(15:15): So first and foremost, just having that go-to, having my partner be there for me and also there for me and willing to say, "You can step away. That you do not have to go through this as a human being, as a daughter, as a wife, as a neighbor." There are moments that that could have been an easy decision. I kept on looking down on our beloved valley and just recognizing that that's not who I am and that's not what I was going to do.
I have an amazing friend network here locally and throughout the state and throughout the country and just spending time with them when it was safe to do so really nourished my soul and spending time with their kids. I mean, our next generation witnessed the best I think in our society and also at times our worst and rightfully and probably witnessed a lot of emotions from adults that they wouldn't normally see.
(16:22): And so spending time with young people and listening to them and just being part of their purity and simplicity really helped me out. I've said it so many times, I don't ever want to relive what we had to over the last three years, mainly two, two and a half years leading up to this three year anniversary. But I will say that I wouldn't do it anywhere else except for Chaffee County. I know that in my heart. I know that just from day in and day out, going to the office, going to the grocery store, and now I'm excited to say going to in-person events and seeing people that I hadn't seen for so long and just embracing each other. All of that has really been part of my journey in how I'm still here today.
Adam Williams (17:21): You mentioned the next generation, and that really touches home for me because as I've mentioned here on this podcast a number of times, I have two young sons. As a family, we're trying to navigate all of these things. And obviously, a lot of families were. I feel like in our household, my wife and I are willing to say, "I don't know." To say the words "I don't know" when the kids ask something. We don't have maybe more of that older school parenting that feels like, "Well, I'm supposed to know, so here's an answer and here's this sort of false certainty."
(17:52): But we entered this period with the pandemic and the politics and all the craziness and the wedges and all these things, and it has been so destabilizing I think for a lot of us as parents because we truly don't know so many things and these kids are going through experiences like none of us have ever been through, so we can't even fall back on, "Well, I have this experience, therefore I have this source for empathy that's very specific." We didn't have the specificity for that.
We're just like, "Sorry, boys. We're all in the unknown here. We're all in the chaos and the uncertainty." I don't know that I'm headed anywhere with a question from that other than that touches my heart in thinking about, "Wow, yes, the impact of what we have coming along and what they take from..." I think your wording, they saw some of the best and they saw some of the worst. I've probably focused on the worst, but they did get to see some of that best.
Andrea Carlstrom (18:48): That's right. Through this whole journey, I think one thing that has grounded me is that we truly, and I know we said this at nauseum at the beginning of the pandemic, but we were in this together. Nobody had the playbook on what it means to live through this novel pandemic.
Sure, for years, myself and my colleagues, my teammates, we trained, we exercised, we drilled, we did all sorts of preparedness activities in just planning for what might be the next, let's say 100 year pandemic. And yet all of the planning, the conversations, the playbooks somewhere in that was missing that there would be a political and cultural wedge created in our society due to said event. We just didn't see that coming until we were in the midst of it.
(20:00): And acknowledging that people had various perspectives. Certainly community members had no problem telling me what they thought, whether it was in favor of or against our strategies. And yet I think if we just take a step back and recognize that these were very uncertain times, they will continue to be uncertain times and we've been challenged. I would like at least our friends and family here in our beloved county to rise to that occasion to say, "That was uncomfortable and it's okay." And we have so many lessons, I hope, we all have so many lessons learned from that to be able to say, "I don't know. I'm living this with you, alongside you.
(20:53): A saying that I say almost on a daily basis personally and professionally is we need to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. This is definitely true in the field of public health, but I think we all got a taste of what it feels like to be outside our comfort zone. And so with that, how do we take the tools in our toolkit and make our community a better place because of it?
Adam Williams (21:24): Being comfortable with the uncomfortable is exactly where my mind was going as you were speaking there. And that is absolutely, I think, one of the positives, the silver linings that we have from this is if people are willing to look at this and say, "Yes, this really threw us. It threw us for a loop, it threw us out of everything that we have become so comfortable with that maybe this is an opportunity to learn, to learn that we can handle discomfort, to learn how to process things, I guess, in a gentler, calmer, slower way instead of being so reactive and at each other."
Andrea Carlstrom (22:03): Yeah. And how do we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others and oppositely how when we see someone going through distress, how can we be there for them so that they can process that situation, diffuse that situation and be safe to describe what that felt like and how to harness tools that do allow us to get through some of the toughest times.
Adam Williams (22:43): You have said to me before that throughout this whole process of the past few years that you came to a place of gratitude.
Andrea Carlstrom (22:45): So much gratitude. I was just in the office this morning and someone asked me how my weekend was and I said, "I'm just grateful I had a weekend." It got so intense there for myself and for my team and my peers and pretty much everyone in the public health and healthcare sector in which the things we took for granted pre pandemic like a weekend, like an evening off, being able to participate in birthday parties and graduations and all of the things that I think we all look forward to and what keep us going throughout the day, right?
I know if I have a busy work week, I have something on the horizon this weekend that I have my sight set on. Somehow getting through that challenging week is just more manageable when I have something to look forward to. And that was taken away from me and so many others in our society for a very, very long time.
(23:46): So I think where some people are getting back to normal feeling like the things that used to bother them are bothering them once again, I feel like my perspective is one in which my eyes are wide open and I see this hope and I feel this gratitude that it goes beyond. I think at some point we'll develop a new vocabulary to process the words to describe what we just went through throughout the pandemic. I think this heightened sense of gratitude is one in which I hope that is contagious. Not communicable disease contagious, but just really just how can we pass along this gratitude and appreciation for the little things and for each other that I think somehow got lost a little bit throughout the pandemic.
Adam Williams (24:43): I do think it's unfortunate that we did not have a moment we could pinpoint in time and have a celebration and have a true defined end to this. It is ongoing, and so that makes it a little murkier. But I do think that for those of us who are willing to reflect and not just shut out this experience that was, over time we'll probably continue to process and maybe think back to other learnings from it.
(25:13): And with that in mind then, I wonder if you put yourself somewhere out in the future at a good distance, maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years, I wonder if you have given thought to what a sense of real successful learning, or maybe that's just personally, maybe it's not about your job right now as director of Chaffee County Public Health, but personally what you might look back on and say, "Wow, this was the source of where I really developed this kind of gratitude or this kind of resilience." Is that even something you can put yourself out in the future and think back and say, "This is what a truly processed, a healthily processed perspective on this experience might include"?
Andrea Carlstrom (25:58): Well, what I will say is that I hope to look at the history books and read the history books and be able to exchange stories and hear from our younger generation in which we should be proud of the content. There were so many people working around the clock for the common good day in and day out in very thankless roles, whether in public health or in healthcare in general. I'm sure that there are so many other sectors as well.
I know in our own community sectors had to pivot left and right. Sometimes the instructions were confusing or not consistent with other counties or other states or even other countries for that matter. And I want to say that we did the best that we could with the resources we had and be very proud of our efforts. So I don't know what exactly that looks like. However, I'd like to be remembered and the pandemic to be remembered for the good that it did rather than the schism and the toxicity that it definitely created at various stages.
Adam Williams (27:08): I look at you, I listen to you, I think you're so optimistic and you have this light and joy about you that it's so positive. And so as we're talking here and I'm listening to the things that you're saying, you are bringing me out of what is probably more common for me to sit with anxiety.
Just even a vague general one because of all the anxiety and mental health sort of and emotional challenges I have felt in recent years that of course the pandemic and the politics and all those things played a heavy role in, I know that those positives are there. I have thought of them at different times, but you're really kind of bringing more of that together for me. It almost makes me think I should just go home and make a list and post it up somewhere that these are all the good things that I personally, that we as a society, that my family, whatever, we have opportunities from this experience.
Andrea Carlstrom (28:01): That's so powerful. Gratitude is medicine to me. It has really gotten me through some of the toughest times that I've ever faced. What I will say is that I too have experienced significant anxiety. I have been a grown up with living with anxiety and have had the most random panic attacks one could ever imagine to the point where you're like, "What just happened there?"
And yet, I feel like this experience of elevated anxiety over the course of several years is not healthy. And so recognizing that how do we take matters into our own hands and focus on the things that will help us get by. And I think those are the cornerstones, the building blocks of how we are resilient as human beings. If we focus on the good and if we focus on the solution rather than the problem because we know problems exist, I think we can prevail, but it's not easy.
(29:14): Gosh, I've been blessed with such a gift, a predisposition for optimism. And truly I know in my heart that that is a key to how I've been successful in navigating what has been very dynamic and challenging and at times traumatic experience for not only myself, but everyone I love and work with and talk to on a regular basis.
Adam Williams (29:44): I'm glad you mentioned that because I'm thinking of the words that we kind of have filling in a list here almost. We have gratitude, optimism, resilience. You've mentioned loyalty and being a loving person. There's probably other words I'm not thinking of at the moment. I was wondering how you have either cultivated these things, were they modeled by your parents or whoever surrounded you in upbringing?
Is there a history or do you even have a way to pinpoint and say, "Oh yeah, that's where I learned this"? Or has it simply been just you and how you've carried yourself through your whole life?
Andrea Carlstrom (30:19): Well, I was always called an old soul growing up. That has always resonated with me even before I knew what that meant. However, I did have amazing positive role models in my life. I had a mom and a dad. And while they divorced while I was really young, they loved me unconditionally so much. And so love was always an important part of my household.
(30:50): I also had the unique opportunity growing up in a very small, quintessential New England town of having all four of my grandparents living in the same town as I did. So while my mom was juggling three jobs trying to make ends meet, I had my grandmother who was so nurturing and loving and kind. She was the kind of person who all of the kids after school would flock to my grandma's house and she would make us snacks and we would do our homework and she would be silly.
It was just such a great time. Then I had my grandfather, extremely academic, but also having an artistic heart as well. He taught me so many lessons on the importance of literacy and technology and was really at the forefront. I think he was the first household in our little town to actually have an Apple computer.
Adam Williams (31:53): Oh, wow.
Andrea Carlstrom (31:53): And so I had that influence as well. And so it was really a beautiful marriage of emotion, but also just academics in that household. At the same time, I had my mummu and papa who were from Finland and came to the United States as stubborn fins. I think that that kind of stubbornness, if you will, has translated for me into loyalty, into a strong work ethic and just really attempting to be my best self every single day. And so I know that I may not have had the easiest childhood growing up, but goodness, what a gift to have those influences in my life.
Adam Williams (32:45): It sounds like it, yeah. To have so many of those adult figures, models involved, engaged, it sounds like they were loving and cared to share so much of themselves and these sorts of values
Andrea Carlstrom (32:58): Yeah. Growing up in this small town, I was very quick to identify the fact that all around me, I was in a middle to upper class community, and yet I lived in this little shack that we lovingly called a little house on the prairie. Believe it or not, it was like at the end of a two-mile dirt road in the middle of nowhere, and it was just my mom, my brother, and I just trying to survive in this house that definitely had its fair share of dysfunction.
And yet I had such caring people to wrap their arms around me and to go to bat for my brother and myself. I quickly realized as well that in order to get ahead and kind of get out of the little house on the prairie, for lack of a better word, that to focus on being my best self, whether that meant academics, whether that meant civic leadership, music, athletics, you name it. My brother and I worked our what's off to get ahead and to demonstrate that we could make it despite the adversity that we experienced in childhood.
Adam Williams (34:19): Was that something that was instilled by your mother who was willing to work hard and work three jobs and still be that loving source of comfort and everything there that you've described? Was that something that you feel like you got from her or from your grandparents around to work yourself positively into a position rather than take this as, "Look, life is hard and you might as well lay down for it"?
Andrea Carlstrom (34:46): Most definitely. My parents were sort of the free spirits out of each of their families. And with that being said, I feel like that balance of being a free spirit, but also being a hard worker and really working for an earning where you get to in life was just something that I recognized early on and I never looked back.
Adam Williams (35:14): You have also referred to yourself to me as a free spirit, or at least that you once were.
Andrea Carlstrom (35:21): Believe it or not.
Adam Williams (35:22): That raises a number of questions actually, but I want to start with, well, what did that mean to you and how did that show up in your life when you were Andrea, the free spirit?
Andrea Carlstrom (35:32): Oh, I am a true Gemini because on one hand I am so focused and so disciplined, and on the other hand, I am this free spirit. I see the world, I think, in kind of that optimistic way that I don't think others necessarily get that privilege of doing so. So what did that look like? Oh man, you should ask my parents. I definitely had a lot of fun in elementary school. In high school, I started listening to jam band music at an early age. My dad would bring me to flea markets. While I wasn't interested in antiques, I definitely gained an appreciation of vinyl.
(36:18): And so I just remember Mamas & the Papas, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Grateful Dead. And so music was something that really got me through childhood. And so when I discovered the band called Phish, my parents thought it was just a phase that I would grow out of it. That's how I have fostered this amazing jam band community and have been part of it since 8th grade.
That's how I met my husband on Phish Tour, how I've had so many magical moments that kind of giving into that freedom and that spirit and just going on tour, finishing finals, and then going on tour with this band and going all around New England and the East coast. Those were some of my happiest fun-filled days filled with so much merriment, meeting colorful people. I was vegetarian vegan for the majority of my childhood and teenage years, and so finding my tribe through vegetarian and veganism and live music was something that was so incredible and I wish everyone had that opportunity to find.
Adam Williams (37:33): You said finished finals. Are we talking about high school? Are we talking about college? How old and for what length of time? This is something I've heard some people talk about doing, following somebody around touring. I never did it, so this really, really is intriguing to me.
Andrea Carlstrom (37:49): Oh my gosh. Well, it truly started in 8th grade, and so I wasn't taking finals then. But in high school, my dad would drop me off at shows. I remember my first show was at UMass Amherst somewhere in 1999 or 2000. I had a lot of friends in high school. I went to an all female private Catholic high school. And so that was an experience all in and of itself. However, yeah, after track meets, my dad would pick me up, I would quickly change and he would drop me off. I got to meet people that I wouldn't necessarily have.
And then over the years as I got older, sometimes I would drag my high school friends to come. Some of them actually ended up really finding a passion for jam band music from that influence. And then over the years, my friends, once we got licenses, they would drop me off at shows and pick me up and we would have a sleepover afterward.
(38:49): In college, it continued and I met some of my dearest friends in college with this passion for live music, for jam music, for Phish. It brought so many travel shenanigans into my life. I met my husband after graduating college in 2003 and didn't look back. I followed my heart instead of my brain for once from Boston to Colorado just under a series of magical moments that has become my life ever since.
Adam Williams (39:25): When you say that you met your husband on tour, are we saying he was just randomly the guy dancing next to you at the concert? Or how did that happen and stick in a way that the two of you would stay in touch and end up with this life story that you're building together?
Andrea Carlstrom (39:43): Gosh, okay, this is going to sound really corny and cheesy, but it really happened. So in August 2003, my friend and I were at a Phish music festival in upstate Maine. The next day we had work. We were in research at our universities, and so we started to leave the festival knowing we had a long drive ahead of us, maybe six hours or something like that. It's a sob story.
My Saab broke down as we were leaving the music festival and we ran into a law enforcement officer who said, "Let me call the local hotel. There happened to be a room available." It was pouring sheets. The next day I was at the salad bar with my dear friend, and lo and behold, my husband swooped into the seat with us and said, "Looks like you are at the Phish Festival. I'd like to chat with you." We chatted all night. It was lovely.
(40:44): The next morning, the hotel owner knocked on our door, my friend and I, and said, "Your car's definitely not going to be fixed for the next few days, but I can get you to the airport to get a rental car" and we said, "Okay." And in line at the airport, I got a little tap on my shoulder and my husband said, "You left without saying goodbye." And so he and his friends chased after us at the airport. They were flying out as well.
They had attended the festival, but it was too good to be true. And so my friend and I, we had a brunch before... Because we were very responsible college graduates. Instead of getting on the road, we decided to have breakfast instead. We were reflecting about the events of the last 72 hours and I said, "I know this is flaky, but I'm going to marry this guy someday." And she said, "It is so flaky and I know you are."
Adam Williams (41:39): Wow, that sounds like a movie worthy sort of romantic thing.
Andrea Carlstrom (41:47): He may not have felt the same way, but I knew it.
Adam Williams (41:51): Well, and here you are though, right? He must have felt something.
Andrea Carlstrom (41:54): Almost 20 years later.
Adam Williams (41:57): Did he live in Colorado at the time?
Andrea Carlstrom (41:58): He did. Mm-hmm.
Adam Williams (42:00): Okay. So he had flown all the way across the country for this.
Andrea Carlstrom (42:04): That's what Phish kids do.
Adam Williams (42:06): Okay. Well, I am sure there is a whole lot more to that story, but we don't have time to keep going down that path. I love what you shared. So we're going to continue on with what we have in our time here, but I'm going to stay with Phish for a moment because when you say that you are a free spirit and that was part of that story, and obviously it sounds like that still is part of your life, I want to know if there are...
Besides the wonderful memories you just shared, music takes us back. Music clearly is part of your personal love and history as you've explained all of this. When I hear certain songs from high school or something, especially college, it puts you right back in that place with those people with that experience. So when you listen to Phish now, especially you and your husband having bonded over this, where does that take you? What kinds of memories do you have from that?
Andrea Carlstrom (43:04): Well, there are always lyrics running in my head, which is kind of funny. And I equate those lyrics to experiences that are happening day to day. I think that those were the happiest times in my life because I had sense of community, people who were of all sorts, professionals, people who were on tour, people who were slinging hot grilled sandwiches as a business in the parking lot.
I just feel like it has always grounded me to know that there are so many different people out there. We are colorful, we are diverse. I think that some of the lessons learned from those experiences have really been to be open-minded, to be empathetic. When you see someone in distress or needing a hand, you rise to the occasion and you help them out even if they're a stranger.
Adam Williams (44:05): You don't describe yourself as free now. I'm putting those words in your mouth because you have said, "Well, I used to be a free spirit." So let me back up with that preface. If you do not see yourself as a free spirit in the same way now, I wonder what has changed other than obviously we've talked about the pandemic and I feel like that that's changed us all.
What do you see has changed in your life and where you are now? Because I still, again, I'll describe you as joyful, light-filled and optimistic person to be around, so not orally serious and just in the weeds. What does that change or difference about you now?
Andrea Carlstrom (44:47): I think the gravity of the pandemic definitely changed me in ways that perhaps are shorter term, perhaps just survival skills, that type of thing. I see glimmers of my free spirit self all of the time. My friends would say the same thing. I am notorious for planning parties, for random dance parties. I have a sparkly microphone at home that I just pass along at parties and everyone gets a chance to sing along.
I love giving speeches and just recognizing the love and the admiration I have for my loved ones, for my family, for my friends. I love the outdoors. I love hiking and running and nature. My goodness, we live in such an extraordinary place to have access to all of that. And so while I might not be 100% "back," I am feeling more and more like my truest self despite everything that we've gone through in the last few years.
Adam Williams (46:00): Yeah, it sounds like you have not so much lost the free spiritedness.
Andrea Carlstrom (46:05): It got distracted.
Adam Williams (46:07): Okay, that sounds fair and very reasonable under the circumstances, right?
Andrea Carlstrom (46:11): Totally.
Adam Williams (46:13): Yeah. Okay, so we are reaching three years into this experience as we started this conversation talking about the ride in some sense is continuing as we are, I think, going to be living with this virus indefinitely forward, right?
Andrea Carlstrom (46:31): Correct.
Adam Williams (46:32): So I guess what I'm wondering is from your, now putting the hat back on that you are director of Chaffee County Public Health and you have this professional subject matter expert position in our lives, in our community, where are we all in this now? What is it that you need all of us to understand or need from us in terms of community as we go forward in finding those positive ways and making use of those opportunities that we now have in how we shape the future?
Andrea Carlstrom (47:06): To me, it's all about taking a moment and turning it into a movement. It's finding magic in the most mundane, getting away from simple transactions and really thinking about transformation. And right at this moment in time, really rebuilding and restructuring a strong public health system, which isn't just your local public health agency. When you think about it, it's all of us contributing to our public health system.
And so how do we harness that energy and the experiences that we've recently gone through for the greater good? And how can we ensure that if there were ever another pandemic, if another natural disaster in our community, something like that, that we're stronger and we're ready for it, and yet we can still celebrate what it means to be here in our valley, in our county, and as contributing members to the greater good in our society?
Adam Williams (48:13): You've referred to incident command when there is an emergency and like a natural disaster, especially where we live, wildland fires are a key concern here. You can list any others that I'm not thinking of because of course you're aware of all the possibilities that we should have in mind.
But I wonder now with the experience of having taken so many of those days, so many of those bad days when you needed to step into that in charge role, if you had an experience now that was a fire, for example, that lasted for a week or a month, do you feel like that you have really a accrued a sort of demeanor and wealth of resilience and knowledge to handle that in a way that maybe five years ago you would've answered it in a different way?
Andrea Carlstrom (49:07): I'd say yes, but it's a journey. It's not a one and done. I think that we all are on this journey, learning together, preparing together. I've always known this, but over the last few years, it's definitely become more apparent than ever before, is having a strong, supportive community. Like I said, I would never want to do what I did in another community.
Our county really has shined in the toughest of times. I think also through to my amazing team who got out of bed miraculously every single day and either reported to the office or reported virtually on behalf of not only our pandemic response, but all of our other public health programming. I think of our county leadership, our county commissioners, we had what was formed early on a leadership round table that we somewhat formed during the Decker Fire, which happened in the fall of 2019. We have built this system of strong responders and caring community members that I do believe is unparalleled compared to any other community.
Adam Williams (50:25): It goes back to seeing the opportunities and the optimism in all of this rather than focusing on the negative or what created stress and anxiety. It's saying, "Wow, we've gone through this thing." And again, the word resilience comes to mind. We've been resilient. We've come out of this in some ways stronger than we were before we went in.
Andrea Carlstrom (50:44): There are truly no words for me to describe my personal experience in the height of the pandemic. The long hours, the impossible conversations, the constant phone calls and emails and texts, many times from strangers who felt like they really needed to express what their experience was or what their thoughts were. I don't want to undermine that experience because it was real and it was stressful and it was unbelievable. I think why I'm still here is because we have focused on the more positive, optimistic, hopeful aspect of an unparalleled experience.
Adam Williams (51:35): I asked you a while ago about something to the effect of why did you not walk away when it was so much stress. It had to have been affecting your Phish fan husband and so many other people around you. So all these people who loved you and cared about you, the friends and the family and the everybody. Why don't you just walk away when people are not always shining their best in your service to them?
Now though that we are at the place where we are, you stuck it out. I guess I would think that you might've had thoughts because you are a reflective person. At some point, that might've gone like, "Well, had I left, where would I be?" Or, "This would've been the situation," or "I'm still here," and "Wow, we're on the other side of the worst of this experience. I'm so glad I stayed." Or along those lines. I don't want to put words in your mouth. Obviously, you're still in the position, so I don't want to make it weird, but I just love to know how people think about things and process and how they learn.
Andrea Carlstrom (52:42): I've done a lot of journaling, more mindfulness than I think I ever imagined myself conducting. While certainly I did at times receive tremendous pressure to step away and to do something else, to find a new career calling, anything, but having to be in the role that I was in, just kept on thinking to myself, the easy way is not always the best way. And this too shall pass one day.
This is not sustainable. I think just being my authentic self in those times, being vulnerable and just accepting that that was my reality really helped me day to day get through those challenges. Having those genuine conversations in my department and with our community members to share how we were feeling and to be able to support each other in the dark days as well as the bright days to celebrate the bright days, I feel like that has really done myself well over the next few years. I can only hope that that can be sort of the movement that we choose to adopt here in this county, one of hope and resilience, strength and empathy.
Adam Williams (54:15): I want to thank you personally. I'm glad that I have this opportunity to thank you face-to-face for. You are having stayed where you were. I feel like you were so specially qualified for so many of the reasons that we have brought out that you have shared in this conversation, to have you in that seat at a time when this happened for all of us.
I know the stress and the things that I felt just within my own household, and I didn't have demands on me. I didn't have any of the negatives, I guess, and the stress that some people. Nobody was creating a Facebook page against me. So thank you for everything that you have done for me, for my family, for all of our community, and that you are still here and you did stick with it. You didn't change careers. You didn't retire and go find a beach somewhere and say, "I'm over this."
Andrea Carlstrom (55:04): It was tempting.
Adam Williams (55:06): I'm sure it has to be. But thank you. And thank you for coming in today and sharing what you have and sharing, I think, more of who you are that I certainly didn't know about all of this and the love of music and so on.
Andrea Carlstrom (55:20): Well, that means a lot to me. I mean, I speak from the heart to say that I love living in and serving our amazing county. I hope that our entire county can walk alongside each other and get through some of the toughest of times together.
Adam Williams (55:37): We were definitely closer to that and better off than we would've been without your leadership. So again, thank you.
Andrea Carlstrom (55:37): Thank you.
Adam Williams (55:53): Okay, that was my conversation with Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health in Chaffee County, Colorado.
If what Andrea shared here today sparked curiosity and ideas for you, you can learn more in this episode's show notes at wearechaffee.org. If you have comments or know someone I should consider talking with on the podcast, you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(56:13): Once again, I'm Adam Williams, show host and photographer. Jon Pray is engineer and producer. Thank you to KHEN Community Radio, where we recorded today's conversation in Salida, Colorado, to Heather Gorby for graphic and web design, to Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public Health and Environment, and to Lisa Martin, community advocacy Coordinator for the We Are Chaffee Storytelling Initiative.
The We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream Podcast is a collaboration with the Chaffee County Department of Public Health and the Chaffee Housing Authority and is supported by the Colorado Public Health and Environment Office of Health Disparities.
You can learn more about the Looking Upstream podcast and related storytelling initiatives at wearechaffee.org, and on Instagram and Facebook at WeAreChaffee.
(56:51): Lastly, thank you for listening. And remember, be human, share stories.