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Stories of fear, hope, survival and reflection from the year that was 2020

Our annual round-up of Colorado narrative stories highlights the themes that, for better or worse, will make 2020 hard to forget. We want you to add your favorites.

Health care workers for the Gunnison County Health and Human Services Department administer COVID-19 tests in below zero temperatures at a mobile testing site set up outside of Crested Butte, Colorado on December 17, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

As you wake up on this crisp New Year’s morning, here’s the bad news: There’s no guarantee that 2021 will magically be any better than 2020 was.

But that’s what makes this New Year’s Day, more so than most, a time for reflection on what we’ve all just been through — what we have all suffered together and what we have all survived together and what we all now know we can endure together in the year to come.

Our annual round-up of Colorado narrative journalism looks a little different this year. In the past, we tried to give you a banquet. This year it’s a potluck. We selected a handful of stories to feature here, highlighting some of the themes that, for better or worse, made 2020 a year to remember. (This is not a best-of list. It’s just a list with some stories we liked from across multiple news outlets.)

But we are inviting you to fill in the rest. Send me (johningold@coloradosun.com) a message with a Colorado story that touched your heart in 2020, and I will add it to the list. The stories can be in any format — written, video, audio, visual — and from any outlet. Please be sure to include a few words about why you liked it and what you think it told us about 2020.

And, then, let’s all turn toward 2021 and remember that, whatever comes our way, we’ve got this.

COURAGE

Denver Health medical professionals took a break from work in the COVID-19 ward to take a selfie last week. They are, from left to right, physician assistants Janice Van Bockern and Becky Gallardo, Dr. Lilia Cervantes, and Dr. David Mintzer. (Photo provided by Lilia Cervantes)

Inside a Colorado coronavirus ward: The frightening reality for doctors as first cases arrive

The night before Dr. Lilia Cervantes started work in the COVID-19 ward at Denver Health, she went online to make a will. It was hard to sleep, her mind stuck on what would happen to her two young daughters and her husband, who has asthma, if she were to become infected with the new coronavirus and expose them. Cervantes, an internal medicine hospitalist at Denver Health, was scared. She got through her first week of service in the ward by isolating herself from her family in the master bedroom and following a careful regimen that included touching the doorknobs in her house only when she was holding a disinfecting wipe. She also bawled her eyes out in her car as she drove home each night.

March seems like an eternity ago, but this Jennifer Brown story has stuck with me throughout my own reporting on the pandemic, like the trusty face masks that I have stashed into every coat pocket, bag and glove box. Jennifer interviewed a Denver Health doctor after her first week in the hospital’s COVID ward, learning how the doctor isolated herself from her family, ate dinner with them via Facetime and gently tried to avoid telling her children about the risks their mom was taking on. The story continues to provide insight into what health care workers have been going through because all this is still happening.

STORY // The Colorado Sun

TOIL

Staff at National Jewish Health work as COVID-19 surges

“This is absolutely insane that we are going through this for the third time, and we are burned out.”

By the pandemic’s ninth month, as hospitalizations and deaths surged higher than they had ever been, Colorado’s health care workers had also reached their limit. It was at that moment that The Denver Post’s AAron Ontiveroz spent a day at National Jewish Health hospital, capturing haunting images that provide a rare glimpse into the on-the-ground reality of fighting the virus.

PHOTOS // The Denver Post

GRIEF

Dog the Bounty Hunter Is Hunting Alone

Dog squirted fake cheese onto a Triscuit and ate it, then lit another menthol Marlboro and eyed a pickup truck creeping into the parking lot. It’s not all love, he said: “I’m tested once a week, guys looking to see how tough the Dog is. That’s what the Taser is for.” Behind his wraparound Oakley sunglasses, his blue eyes are marked by deep circles. A cloud of nervous energy comes and goes like a storm. He is 66 and alone for the first time in decades.

Few of us in January knew the heartache that lay ahead. But, in a way, famed bounty hunter Duane “Dog” Chapman did. The New York Times ventured to Dog’s house in Pine for this profile of Chapman coping with the loss of his wife. Reading it today provides a strange but comforting moment of recognition of the grief so many of us now feel but have no idea what to do with.

STORY // The New York Times

RESILIENCE

Back from Broken

I’m scared to death and I’m begging for my life, but he just stood there with no emotion holding that gun over me. Then he started kicking me in the head, kicking my ribs, kicking me in the face. While that was happening for some reason I’ll always have the memory of a fish tank in the room. I could just hear the water filtering from the fish tank and that’s what I was focusing on while he was beating me up. And the whole time I’m thinking how did things ever get this far?

If nothing else, 2020 taught us that we are all survivors struggling toward a better tomorrow. And, in that sense, it helps to hear from some folks who have walked this path before. In his podcast “Back from Broken,” Colorado Public Radio reporter Vic Vela has been interviewing people who are recovering from addiction, trauma and mental health challenges. Each episode is great, but I’m going to call out one in particular — Episode 4, from back in April, when Vic tells his own story.

PODCAST // Colorado Public Radio

STRAIN

For One Lakewood Family, Mental Health Difficulties Aren’t Just About 2020

You would have thought, Barfoot says, that a life punctuated by the stress of coping with the intertwining of mental illness and physical disability would have prepared her for 2020. But, no, this year’s added layer of uncertainty has proven unrelenting in its ability to make her feel powerless. “I feel like I have no control over anything,” she says.

The past year has featured so much powerful and ambitious reporting focused on mental health in Colorado. See, for instance, Jennifer Brown’s story about teen suicides on the Eastern Plains, Denver Post reporter Jessica Seaman’s investigation of Safe2Tell for the paper’s Crisis Point series, and CPR’s massive Teens Under Stress project. All are worth your time. This story, by the Colorado News Collaborative’s Tina Griego, overlays an examination of the stresses of the pandemic on top of the everyday challenges so many were already facing, creating a portrait of 2020 as the year that pushed families across Colorado beyond the breaking point. 

STORY // Colorado News Collaborative

URGENCY

Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod (D-Denver) introduces U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) at the start of a rally for Harris’s Democratic presidential primary campaign at Manual High School on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 in Denver. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

How Twin Pandemics Transformed Denver’s Black Leadership

“The idea of taking power like that seemed wrong to me,” Coleman remembers. “I was always taught that you do your work and you wait until the generation before you decides it’s your time.” But after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, as Americans were stuck at home and saw video of a police officer kneeling on the man’s neck for nearly nine minutes, the concept of politely waiting for anything, even for Coleman, seemed like a relic.

With its menacing, unrelenting cruelty, 2020 revealed so plainly the tensions and inequity within our state that not taking action seemed unimaginable. This urgency led to historic protests, clashes and bloodshed. But, as 5280 magazine’s Robert Sanchez shows with this piece, it also galvanized young leaders to form a movement that will create lasting change and, potentially, use 2020 as a springboard for a more just society.

STORY // 5280

PERIL

Hour-by-Hour: A Day in the Pandemic

Nolan Christopher Dreher’s parents tucked him into his car seat in the back of their Toyota Highlander and drove snowy roads from Steamboat Springs to their home in Oak Creek. Nolan, cozy in a white onesie with bears on it, was two days old and on his way to meet his brothers. Lauren Dreher was hoping she had been careful enough, that the nurses and doctors and the woman who came in her hospital room to take out the trash were not infected with the virus. “At the end of the day you have to know that you did everything you could do,” she said. “I’m just hoping that that’s enough. I was trying so hard not to touch my face. You’re in labor and you brush your hair out of your face and wipe your brow.”

So often 2020 felt like a game of The Floor is Lava. One wrong step, one careless moment … peril lurked everywhere. Every day brought a new dose of anxiety. To capture the feeling of living through a pandemic, journalists from outlets across Colorado, including The Sun, fanned out on April 16 to document the lives of Coloradans struggling through. The excerpt above tells the story of a blessed event — the birth of a new child — suddenly made treacherous.

STORY // Multiple news organizations

ABSURDITY

The University of Colorado campus. (File photo)

The long, strange journey of Colorado football’s equipment truck

But when he drove off, the Buffaloes weren’t in the championship game. There was just a chance they would be by the time he got about halfway between Boulder and L.A. The whole story is a mess of logical guesses, bureaucratic indecision and aimless wandering, which is what makes Lehmann the perfect emblem of an illogical, indecisive and often aimless year in both college football — two conferences that canceled and then un-canceled, more than 150 games lost to COVID-19, a conference champion in the College Football Playoff who played just six games — and the entire world.

Before we end here, can we talk for a moment about how weird 2020 was? Horrible, tragic, fractious, stressful, lonely. But also just bizarre. This story by ESPN’s Tim Keown about the University of Colorado football team equipment truck’s mission to nowhere for a game the team never played pretty much captures it: A world where everything is both immediate and aimless, perfectly logically trying to do something totally absurd.

STORY // ESPN

LONGING

As Many Older Coloradans Still Live In Isolation, A Son Sings Outside His Mom’s Window

As the pandemic continues, Nicosia said he will return to his mom’s window every day. … He said he will bring a card and help his mom conference call family members. He will also let his mom know how he feels about her. “I love you,” Nicosia said to his mother. “I love you more,” she answered.

Just the headline here brings tears to my eyes. This is the 2020 experience writ poignantly small. Separated from the ones we love in order to protect them. Seeking connection via screens, behind masks, from afar, through glass. As close as we can safely get and not nearly close enough at all. If there is one wish for the new year I can give to you all it is this: May 2021 be a year where you can again hug and be hugged.

STORY // KUNC

FROM OUR READERS

On Edge: There’s A $1,000,000 Bounty On His Head and He Can’t Go Home

“I was just doing my job. It’s been absolutely horrible … it’s completely upended my entire life. My day-to-day life is nothing like it was and probably never will be again. These kinds of conspiracies – this will not die down. It’s out there. They have stated they never want me to have a day of peace.”

Reader Alison Brown submitted this story by the Ark Valley Voice’s Jan Wondra about an executive at Dominion Voting Systems who has become a target of conspiracy theorists who wrongly think he rigged the presidential election. Alison wrote: “No one could have suspected the grief, fear and upending of their lives that could happen from just doing their jobs. This story about the wrecking of Eric Coomer’s life touched me for this reason, as did (a Facebook) post from a friend whose daughter, a health department worker, is now being threatened by so-called Douglas County patriots.”

(Our own Jesse Paul and Colorado Community Media’s Jessica Gibbs wrote about threats to public health workers here.)

STORY // Ark Valley Voice

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