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Outbreak Wisconsin chronicles people’s journeys through the coronavirus crisis, exposes failing systems and explores solutions.

Listen to Mariah Clark’s audio diary, produced by Bram Sable-Smith for WPR.

Following a March overnight shift in the emergency department at UW Health in Madison, nurse Mariah Clark walked outside and heard birds chirping for the first time in months.

“It made me inexplicably happy,” Clark said.

After a year of reflecting on the traumas she witnessed while treating COVID-19 patients and losing her own loved ones to the deadly disease, the spring song prompted introspection about a life after the pandemic. 

Mariah Clark is seen in the back yard of her Madison, Wis., home on July 17, 2020. Will Cioci / Wisconsin Watch

“I think this year people were more aware of winter as a season of death and spring as a season of rebirth,” Clark said.

“There’s a definite feeling of seeing the twilight before dawn.”

But even as she looks forward, Clark can’t help but process the past. People struggle to  understand big numbers, Clark noted, even while she takes pride in being a “data person.” But the 550,000-plus American lives lost to the coronavirus the U.S. —  including more than 6,600 in Wisconsin, remain difficult to comprehend.

“I’ve lost track of how many of my close friends I’ve lost to COVID. I have to go back and check social media posts to remember, because there weren’t any funerals to mark” their deaths, Clark said. “I’ve definitely lost count of how many patients I’ve lost.”

She added: “I know that nobody who didn’t deal with COVID day in and day out — constantly faced with it in all of its ugly truth daily — is going to ever really grasp what it was like.”

That only heightens the importance of listening to stories from those who experienced the worst of the pandemic, she said. “I know that there are stories I will never forget this year. My own and other people’s. So when people share, listen. It’s worth it.”

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Bram Sable-Smith joined the Center in 2019 as the Wisconsin Public Radio Mike Simonson Memorial Investigative Reporting Fellow. Before moving to Wisconsin he spent five years reporting on health care at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri and as a founding reporter of Side Effects Public Media, a public media reporting collaborative in the Midwest. He also taught radio journalism at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Bram’s contributed stories to National Public Radio’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American Public Media’s Marketplace and Kaiser Health News. His reporting has received two national Edward R. Murrow awards, two national Sigma Delta Chi awards, a health policy award from the Association of Health Care Journalists among others. Bram is a proficient Spanish speaker and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis.