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Rachel Stern | | April 21, 2020

Current and former NCAA student-athletes responding to the COVID-19 need

For Sara Gifford, there are two worlds: hospital and home. There is not much in between. And the hours at home revolve around thinking about her other world.

It is hard not to. Days off are spent trying to learn what she can about this virus and its many unknowns. The hours at the hospital are long, heavy and full of ups and downs. The ICU nurse in Detroit sees about two or three COVID-19 patients a day during her 13-hour shifts. She has her own N95 mask and face shield that rarely come off (except for the occasional sip of coffee), so they are taking a physical toll on her face, leaving a painful etching in her skin. That is what facing COVID-19 day after day is like.

On a recent Saturday, Gifford was in one corner of a room holding a phone to a patient’s ear as the patient lay dying, a ventilator attempting to deliver air to the lungs and intravenous therapy medications trying to keep the patient’s heart rate and blood pressure up. Gifford held the phone up so family members could say their final goodbyes — over the phone. In the other corner, Gifford had another patient slowly getting off a ventilator. She dialed up FaceTime so that patient could connect with family desperate for any form of an update, even if it came in the form of a thumbs up and wave over a device.

“I will never forget that, trying to hold back tears in my eyes while I have one patient dying over the phone and another one making incremental steps,” Gifford said. “That afternoon sums up caring for COVID patients — you experience elements of hope and happiness, while also seeing horror. But you have to keep going for your patients.”

Health care workers have become everything to COVID-19 patients: medical expert, lifesaver, emotional support provider and, all too often, the last person they physically see and touch. The country wouldn’t work without these people putting their lives on the line to help others during this pandemic. They are one example of front-line workers across an array of industries who are doing just that. And many are former or current student-athletes.

Gifford is one example of this. The former Detroit Mercy soccer player graduated in 2016 and is married to former Detroit Mercy men’s lacrosse player Joe Gifford, a police officer in Detroit. Chances are if you ask one former or current student-athlete working on the front lines about their experiences, they will put you in touch with at least five other student-athletes they know doing similar work.

UNITED: We're checking in with student-athletes to find out how they're doing

This doesn’t surprise Stephany Coakley, senior associate athletics director for mental health at Temple. For nearly 20 years, Coakley has worked as a mental performance consultant, coordinating mental health and wellness services for student-athletes, Olympians and professionals.

“There are not many things that can prepare you for being on the front lines of a global pandemic,” Coakley said. “But I do believe the habits and mindset that are developed as a student-athlete lend themselves to being on the front lines right now. Discipline, work ethic, teamwork, staying calm under pressure. Balancing the physically demanding with the mental grind. These are attitudes that are forged through athletic pursuit. You must make decisions quickly in demanding pressure situations. You must be uber adaptable to changing situations. Athletes develop grit. If you are in a game and things aren’t going well, you can’t just pack up and leave. You have to stay in the game and try and figure something out to turn it around.”

EMT — Westchester County, New York

Michael Minerva has seen it all. Or he thought he had. Hangings, overdoses, gunshot wounds.

But about six weeks ago, all of that changed. Things that stuck out in Minerva’s mind as memorable suddenly paled in comparison to the calls that started coming in. And coming in. And coming in.

As an EMT in Westchester County, New York, Minerva reports to work each morning at 6 a.m. for his shift at Empress Emergency Medical Services based in Yonkers. He now knows he will spend the next eight to 16 hours, at least, responding to COVID-19 patients. Minerva and his co-workers are usually the first medical personnel patients seen during this pandemic, and the county they serve has been one of the nation’s hardest hit.

Since early March, Empress EMS has had 3,500 calls related to COVID-19. During that time, 220 patients have died before reaching a hospital. In an average pre-COVID-19 month, about 40 people would die before reaching a hospital. Due to overcrowding at hospitals, Empress has had to transport approximately 3,000 COVID-19 patients to hospitals all over New York.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said Minerva, who graduated from Endicott in 2016 and played offensive lineman for the school’s football team. “It is physically and mentally exhausting, but this is what I signed up for when I got into the medical profession. Our patients need us now more than ever.”

Since the COVID-19 calls started, every one has involved a patient with shortness of breath, weakness, fever, cough, cardiac arrest. In the beginning, Minerva and his co-workers would decontaminate each ambulance by hand after a suspected COVID-19 patient occupied it. The process would take more than an hour.

“That first day, there was this long line of ambulances waiting to be cleaned. It seemed like the line never ended,” he said.

Now, a bleach machine is used to clean each ambulance. A six-minute process. All Empress employees who enter the building must get their temperature taken. Family members can no longer ride along in the ambulance.

Minerva has seen all types of patients. He has seen 29-year-olds breathing through a ventilator. He has seen older people make surprising recoveries. But nursing homes have been where Minerva is called the most. By far.

“You will get a call from a nursing home, and then the next day the entire hall has it,” he said.

A week ago, Minerva was called to a nursing home in Yonkers. The home had three floors, and there were two people on each floor experiencing cardiac arrest.

Doctor — Winslow, Arizona

For as long as she can remember, Michelle Tom wanted to be a doctor. Healing runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather was a shaman in the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. Her father taught her about healing, as did her mother.

Growing up on the reservation, Tom also saw the disparities her people faced: limited access to running water, an understaffed and underfunded health care system, underlying health conditions. There was rarely a doctor who looked like her or spoke Navajo, so her goal was to take care of her community.

Tom played basketball at Arizona State, a dream come true, she said. The first person in her family to go to college, she graduated in 1999 with a degree in microbiology.

Now, she is a doctor at Winslow Indian Health Care Center, a small outpatient clinic serving Native Americans in Winslow, Arizona, and the surrounding rural community. Tom spends most days treating COVID-19 patients during her 12-hour shifts, barely taking a break to eat. She bought her own protective suit, goggles, face shield and a shower cap from Sally Beauty. They have two ventilators and one ER doctor.

Recently, Tom witnessed a doctor pull off his mask while trying desperately to save a life. He contracted COVID-19 and is now back in the office.

People in the Navajo Nation are testing positive for COVID-19 at a rate more than nine times higher than people in the state of Arizona as a whole. Many of her patients come from as far as three hours away because it is the closest health facility.

“We are trying to manage as best we can with what we have,” Tom said. “It is very scary, but it is also our duty to care for our patients. It is up to us as health care workers to rally as a team to put something together that will work for our community. That is our duty and all we can focus on.”

Student turned mask maker, grocery worker — Huntington Beach, California

It’s an unlikely setting for an assembly line: a living room in Huntington Beach, California, with chairs pushed to the side next to the cat’s scratching posts to make room for the long table full of sewing equipment.

But that is the scene where Sara Chin, a junior swimmer at Stony Brook, has set up shop with her mom since leaving campus a month ago. Chin is sewing desperately needed masks for medical workers, community members, grocery employees and other people working on the front lines.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to help the community,” Chin said.

So far, the mother-daughter team has sewn about 300 masks. School and work have slowed production a bit, as the spring break numbers were about 30-40 masks a day, and now the number is closer to 10-20.

Each one takes about 15 to 20 minutes to make. Some kinks are being worked out in the process, but progress has been made.

Using her grandmother’s 70-year-old Singer sewing machine, Chin is sewing masks from materials found around her house — dress shirts, spare fabric, you name it.

She has donated masks to the grocery store where she works 25 hours a week bagging and delivering groceries and cleaning cash registers. She has done more and more grocery deliveries and cleaning as co-workers fearing the virus have quit.

“Being in sports my entire life gives me the mindset that when things like this happen, if you can, you should step up and try to do whatever you can for those who need it the most,” she said.

Masks also have gone to the hospital where her father works, neighbors and other grocery stores in the community. Though they are not medical-grade masks, instead made from 100% cotton, the hospital uses them for individuals not seeing patients, as well as for placement over N95 masks to lengthen their lifespan.

“I have firsthand knowledge of what is going on, so my instinct is to see how I can help,” said Chin, who is a biology major on a premedicine track. “We are obligated to help people in whatever way we can. Now is a time to work together and have each other’s backs more than ever.”

ICU nurse — Detroit


The emotional toll of caring for COVID-19 patients day after day is huge, said Gifford, the ICU nurse in Detroit.

The virus lands patients in the intensive care unit for lengthy stays. Before, a patient would be on a ventilator a couple of days. Now patients are on ventilators for more than a week, sometimes two. And there is no family at the bedside.

“The most sick and most vulnerable are all alone, except for us,” Gifford said. “That is a lot.”

But the key, she said, is a team effort — doctors, nurses, nursing assistants, respiratory therapists all working together to try to provide the best patient care possible while fighting a virus they are learning about on the fly. It reminds her of her soccer playing days at Detroit Mercy.

“This is about putting others above yourself and just doing the work,” Gifford said. “No one wants to feel vulnerable when treating a virus that is always changing and when we are short on PPE and when we are seeing people die without their families. But you realize quickly you cannot control these circumstances — just like on the field or in a game.”

That is why after 13-hour shifts and between graduate nursing classes, Gifford is spending her days off volunteering with the public health response for the state of Michigan. She makes phone calls to people who have been exposed to COVID-19, answers questions, and educates them on next steps, quarantine, and signs and symptoms.

“This is much more like a 90-minute-plus soccer game as opposed to a sprint. You just put your head down and keep going and stop dwelling on what you cannot control because so many people are relying on you,” Gifford said. “It is about resilience and doing everything in your power to help.”

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