When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Julie Hudson was working as a nursing manager in the cardiac unit at a suburban Detroit hospital. She watched the world, and the healthcare profession, change in a flash.
“When it all started, our unit was the first in the hospital to go completely COVID-19 care,” she said. “It was a little daunting to tell the staff, but in the big picture, we knew what we were dealing with going in. We had to alter our approach to just about everything.”
For Hudson and many other former Falcon student-athletes who have settled into careers in the healthcare profession or as first responders, their work has put them on the front lines in this era of quarantines, enhanced personal protective equipment and social distancing. And they have leaned on their experiences on very different fields of play to help them adjust and answer the challenges the pandemic has presented.
“I would say hands-down that my background in athletics has helped,” said Hudson, a four-year letter winner who played both first base and catcher on the Falcon softball team (1990-93). “You are operating in an ever-changing environment where you have to prepare yourself very well, and then adjust to stay on top of things. We had a game plan for every patient, every day, and as a medical team we were there in the trenches, and we have leaned on each other.”
Former Falcon football player Anthony Lawson, who works as a simulation specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, said his role supporting the education and training of the staff at that vast medical facility is focused on delivering quality patient care in a safe manner. The pandemic demanded a new playbook.
“We had to find new processes for the whole work flow, for training and best practices,” he said. “We had to ramp up the protocols and find a new best way of doing things. Nobody was prepared for something like this, so it turned everything upside-down.”
Lawson, who played both linebacker and defensive end for the Falcons and earned a degree in biochemistry from BGSU, said that despite the numerous issues the virus presented, the fundamental mission of hospitals large and small did not change.
“A hospital is supposed to be a safe place, and we wanted to be on the front lines with this pandemic and show how it should be done and how everyone can be kept safe,” he said.
“My athletic experience has definitely helped me, because in football it was always to your advantage to be very attentive to details and the way things would change around you. And you always need to work as a team and have everyone on the same page. You can’t have a lot of individuals doing things differently and expect to be successful.”
Brianna McGuffie faced a rapidly changing workplace when the pandemic hit the hospital in Atlanta where she works as a pediatric nurse. The 2017 graduate and former Falcon gymnast saw the floor she was assigned to be transformed overnight into the hospital’s designated COVID unit.
“It was definitely a scary time, not knowing the impact this disease would have,” she said. “It called for a huge adjustment for everyone and it was a constant learning thing as we worked to figure things out.”
The Georgia native, who lost her grandmother to the coronavirus, said the discipline and mental toughness she developed as an athlete was a significant asset as the pandemic created a highly stressful work environment.
“My background certainly helped me in terms of dealing with the crisis, staying focused, and being able to adapt to constant change,” she said. “There was some apprehension involved, but I don’t think I would be the nurse I am today without the experience I had being on the gymnastics team and facing pressure situations in competitions.”
Emily Witt, who played tennis for BGSU from 2015-17, works as a medical transcriptionist in the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. She charts information and documents the health history of patients while they are meeting with physicians at the facility.
“My job became more stressful and more complicated as the pandemic set in, and the whole system we had in place changed almost overnight,” said Witt, who was twice honored on the Academic All-MAC Team while at BG. “There were tents set up outside to handle the overflow of patients and to screen people, and obviously our precautions were significantly ramped up. We had all done some kind of emergency preparedness training or drills, but it’s very different when it is reality.”
Witt said her experience as a student-athlete allowed her to make the necessary adjustments to her routines and practices, while maintaining efficiency and effectiveness.
“The mindset you have as a Division I athlete is one that is very driven and very focused, and it has you always prepared for the unknown that might be coming at you,” she said. “Being good at time management and balancing a number of roles, all things you do as an athlete, also benefits you a lot in a situation like this.”
Working in a COVID unit was the first job after her recent graduation for Rachel Stute, who ran sprints and relay events for Falcon Track and Field. She went to work as a nurse for Baptist Health Hospital in Jacksonville just as the pandemic was forcing health care facilities to make radical changes.
“It was a very interesting time, but also a very hard time because it wasn’t like the normal nursing you trained for at all, where you interact with the patients all of the time,” she said. “But it was a lot like athletics because you had to figure out a way to get things done and then make it work. The leadership skills you develop in sports also come into play, since a lot of what we do is team nursing.”
Dr. David Rottinghaus, who was a fullback on the 1990 Falcon Football team, is now the chief medical officer and director of emergency medicine for Butler Health System in Pittsburgh. He said the coronavirus pandemic was every bit the game changer for the medical field.
“We do disaster response training and in emergency medicine you do a lot of preparation for mass casualty events, but I don’t know that anybody can really prepare for a pandemic,” he said. “With those disaster events, there is usually a clear start and stop, within hours or a couple of days, but we saw that this thing would be with us for months to come, and that meant a unique set of challenges.”
Rottinghaus said the coronavirus brought together people from different entities and very different specialties, and communication and cooperation were essential for successful outcomes.
“One of the beauties of athletics at the college level is that you get exposed to all different types of people and you learn to work toward a common goal,” he said. “The lessons you learn in athletics transcend into real life when you are faced with challenges that require the support of so many people. Athletics bridges gaps and it has played very well for me in my career, and in the way we have been working through this thing. Other hospitals would normally be our rivals, but we dropped those divisions and shared resources and equipment.”
Former Falcon sprinter Brianna Johnson, who earned a nursing degree after graduating from BGSU in 2017 with a degree in public health, works in the pulmonary unit at the Cleveland Clinic. She said the pandemic’s impact was not limited to the sections of the hospital that housed coronavirus patients.
“Everyone was affected because the entire hospital had to shift due to COVID-19,” she said. “As nurses, our role changed in many ways, and since there were no visitors allowed for a long time, we tried to give comfort to the patients as often as we could.”
According to Johnson, the discipline she developed as a track athlete has served her well during this very demanding time.
“Everyone feels additional pressure during something like this, but I am remaining positive. Track showed me the endurance you need in life and that nothing worthwhile comes easy, but you can work your way through it. In my mind, if you can train to run the 400, then you can train for anything.”