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Dr. Antonio Washington is used to feeling unrelenting stress. In the mid to late 1980s, he competed for the Howard University varsity men’s wrestling team while studying on a pre-med track. Washington practiced daily in the winter season, usually from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m., wrestled against Division I talent on the weekends, and stayed up late to finish his studies with his eyes toward a medical degree.
Success as a student athlete required intense focus and discipline.
“With a sport like wrestling in which there is constant engagement with your opponent, the entire match is meaningful and challenging,” Washington says. “Because the match is not over until the time has run out. Every moment is a moment that if you took your foot off the gas pedal, it can cause your match to end. It’s not over until it’s over.”
Decades later, the 55-year-old doctor is drawing on those lessons for another pressure-filled situation. Washington is the medical director at two freestanding emergency rooms for the South Texas Hospital System, located in the Rio Grande Valley along the border between Mexico and the United States. As a physician, Washington serves on the front lines of the novel coronavirus pandemic, evaluating individuals who may test positive for COVID-19.
His past as a competitive athlete has helped prepare him for this. But while collegiate wrestling may be more physically taxing, there is one crucial difference.
“In wrestling, you can quit your match,” Washington says, “but not as an ER doctor.”
According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.9 million people have tested positive for COVID-19 cases worldwide, and more than 123,000 people have died as of April 15. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the United States has 579,005 total cases and 22,252 total deaths—the most of any country
Across the globe, doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and other health care workers are spending grueling hours at hospitals and urgent care clinics. Their jobs require them to walk into the epicenters of the pandemic, in places stretched thin and where the constant flow of potential COVID-19 patients makes everyone’s role vital.
Among those are former elite athletes, who have traded the rigid schedule of competitive sports, which are now at a standstill due to the pandemic, for the urgent and critical duties of treating coronavirus patients. They’re using skills they learned as athletes to help save lives: Early hours, persistent pressure, and time management are nothing new for them.
Three times a week, Kamilla Beisenova wakes up at 6 a.m. to get to her 12-hour shifts at the George Washington University Hospital as an emergency room technician. She started the job last April with the intention of going to medical school either this fall or next year.
At the hospital, her duties include starting the intravenous lines for patients, drawing blood work, performing electrocardiogram (EKG) tests, and general tasks like collecting urine, taking patients to X-rays and CT scans, and providing patients with food and blankets.
In the last few weeks, Beisenova, a former GW women’s tennis player, has added another important responsibility: testing potential COVID-19 patients with a nasopharyngeal swab.
“It’s definitely stressful, especially because I felt like in the beginning, it didn’t feel real yet, it didn’t hit you,” she says. “Now having to adjust to the flow of having so many new procedures for our safety and patient safety, we’ve had to learn and adjust to doing everything different. I think that’s been really hard and stressful.”
It’s only been two years since Beisenova, 23, graduated from GW as a member of the women’s tennis team. She first competed in tournaments around age 7, when she lived in Kazakhstan, and trained at the 4 Star Tennis Academy in Potomac after she moved to the United States with her family in 2010. Beisenova currently lives in Bethesda with her mother, younger brother, and 84-year-old grandmother, which makes her job dealing with potential COVID-19 patients even more anxiety inducing.
“I would be so afraid to bring this home,” she says.
But Beisenova can handle the pressure. Being a former Division 1 student athlete tested her resolve, and Beisenova draws some parallels from those years to her schedule now. Junior and collegiate tennis matches can sometimes last up four hours under the crackling summer heat. In college, victories can come down to your individual match. At the hospital, she’s standing for the majority of the day, and doctors rely on Beisenova to accurately conduct patient tests.
“I don’t think I would have learned or adjusted or been comfortable with a lot of these things if I hadn’t played competitive sport in my life,” she says. “A lot of things sports teaches you, not just how to adjust to pressure or stress, but just staying organized, disciplined, managing your time, dedicating to your goal, all those things have had an impact, that have transferred from me playing tennis to life in general.”
Similar to Beisenova, Kelley Marchiano credits her past as a collegiate athlete for her life today. Marchiano, 32, is a physician assistant at Priority Care Clinics in White Marsh, Maryland.
She sees about 20 patients a day who arrive at her clinic for COVID-19 tests. Some patients show up with upper respiratory problems, and others are asymptomatic other than the loss of smell and taste, Marchiano says. She prefers to do the nasal swabbing herself and is constantly on her feet for her three 12-hour shifts a week.
It helps that she spent four years on the University of Maryland track and field team, focusing on the 800 meters, arguably the toughest distance to race on the track.
“I think especially working 12-hour shifts, that can be exhausting for most people,” Marchiano says. “Having been an 800 runner, I have that stamina built up. I can handle that pretty well. I think it’s that I don’t get overwhelmed by things.”
She adds that she has personally swabbed at least 10 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. After her shift ends at 8 p.m., Marchiano takes off her personal protective equipment, changes out of her scrubs in the office, and sterilizes her shoes. At her home near Towson, Maryland, her husband and 2-and-a-half year old daughter wait until she returns to have dinner.
It’s physically and mentally draining work, but as she reflects back on her time as a Division I student athlete, Marchiano feels she’s been able to have a clear perspective—“I’m grateful that I still have a job,” she says—and take things in stride. Even during a global pandemic.
“I do feel an intense amount of pressure to see these patients, diagnose them correctly in order to help prevent further spread of the virus and keep people safe and healthy,” she says. “But I think I am better equipped to handle that pressure because of all the situations and races I conquered as a student athlete at Maryland. This is just another obstacle to overcome.”
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So far, Washington has admitted two known COVID-19 patients to the hospital, but says he is “bracing for worse.” Medical experts predict that cases will increase before the situation improves, and that a second wave of the virus could return in the fall after a lull in the summer. It will likely be many months until live sports return.
It’s forcing those on the front lines like Washington, who went to medical school at Johns Hopkins University, to adjust to the sobering truth that by simply showing up to work, he could be risking his own life and the lives of those close to him.
He carries a change of clothes to the office and before he leaves each night after his 12-hour shifts, he takes off his scrubs and shoes in the parking lot, places them in a bag, and sets that aside for three to four days. When Washington returns to his home in McAllen, Texas, he hops in the shower before doing anything else.
“Emergency medicine in general is a pretty stressful job,” he says. “We’re used to a certain level of stress being in there. At any point at any time, any level of emergency can walk through the door. But the COVID-19 experience has added to that level of stress and readiness that’s necessary to work as a physician in the emergency room. That’s largely because for most physicians, this is the first time practicing in which just doing your job places your life and health at risk.”
Sports can’t prepare you for everything. Wrestling competitions, tennis matches, and track meets aren’t life or death affairs. But during his wrestling career, the thought of giving up during a competition never crossed Washington’s mind. He felt obligated to himself, his coaches, teammates, and school to compete.
The matches where he faced bigger or stronger opponents brought the best out of him. Washington believes you learn how committed you are in these moments. Wrestling taught him that, and until the pandemic is over, he’s not going anywhere.
“You have to dig deep,” Washington says. “You continuously have to answer the questions: Are you going to persist? Can you dig deeper? It reminds and encourages you not to quit.”