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Cascades vs. COVID-19 ufv varsity alumni are leading the way in the pandemic battle

At UFV Athletics, we’re proud of our many Cascades alumni who have gone on to careers in health care – and never more so than right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. To salute their heroic efforts, and to join in the groundswell of support for health care workers worldwide, we’ve asked several Cascades serving as doctors and nurses on the front lines to share their stories.

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Before each of his emergency room shifts at Abbotsford Regional Hospital, Dr. Peter Wauthy takes a few quiet moments to mentally prepare for the challenges that await.

He begins with visualization, walking step-by-step through scenarios he might face. He alternates between his own point of view and stepping outside himself, so to speak, and watching in his mind’s eye as he works through a critical care situation. He might envision treating a potential COVID-19 patient – carefully donning each layer of personal protective equipment (PPE), entering the double doors of the negative pressure room where the patient is isolated to prevent cross-contamination, and communicating via a walkie-talkie-like apparatus with the nurses and support staff outside.

Then, he shifts to positive reinforcement – focusing on the strength, courage and wisdom required to make the right decisions under pressure, the ability to listen to patients and respect their values and wishes, and ultimately treat their symptoms effectively.

He pauses to remind himself he is human and has limitations, and that there are other physicians on site who he can reach out to for support as needed.

He reflects on how he’ll communicate with the others who will join him on shift – nurses, respiratory therapists, social workers, unit clerks and cleaning staff, and many more. Each has a crucial role to play.

When the shift begins, “the switch gets flicked.”

This is your time to perform.

Wauthy’s “mental model”, as he calls it, is rooted in his background as a high-performance athlete. He spent three highly decorated seasons (2000 through 2003) playing basketball at the University of the Fraser Valley. He was part of the Cascades’ Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) national championship-winning team in 2002, and the following season, was named the CCAA national player of the year.

Wauthy, who went on from his kinesiology studies at UFV to finish medical school at UBC (he also played two basketball seasons with the Thunderbirds), has been an ER physician in Abbotsford since 2014. He credits his former Cascades head coach Pat Lee for first impressing upon him the importance of pregame mental prep, and he continues to value that approach in the era of COVID-19.

"Initially, it was quite taxing. It’s intense, right? ... The mental burden was high"

In early March, as the novel coronavirus began racing its way around the globe, Wauthy and his Abbotsford ER colleagues invested a combined 300 additional hours to prepare for what was to come. The ER was reconfigured to create a separate area for potential COVID-19 cases. Equipment was sourced. Staff communication protocols were instituted. Two extra doctors were on call around the clock.

“Initially, it was quite taxing,” he says. “It’s intense, right? Everywhere around you, there’s potential (COVID cases). The mental burden was high.

“Just from the preparation standpoint, we have to wear a facemask and eye protection at all times for all patients. So you walk around the ER, and everyone’s got these masks and face shields on. It’s hard to even recognize who people are. It brings that level of anxiety around the whole situation . . . it’s out there, and every case is a potential. You want to take your time, and not rush – make sure you do all the proper steps to make sure you’re safe, and everyone around you.”

Wauthy brings along an extra change of clothes to work each day. At the end of his shift, after carefully removing his PPE – the variety and number of layers depending on the type of work he’s been doing with COVID-19 patients – and puts on the fresh outfit. When he arrives at home, those clothes (and the clothes he wore to work) go straight into the washing machine, and he heads directly to the shower before interacting with wife Erin and their two young children.

“We were seeing certain scenarios, like in Italy at the time and later in New York, and we weren’t sure if that was going to happen here,” says Wauthy, a Cascades Hall of Fame inductee in 2018. “Fortunately enough, we were able to flatten that curve fairly well here in B.C. . . . it didn’t overwhelm our system, which is great.

“But at the same time, even though we’re doing a really great job, we need to continue to social distance. Be safe out there and don’t become too lax, because that’s how this thing will come back. That’s the message to the community.”

* * * * * * *

Expectant parents, at the best of times, tend to fluctuate on the spectrum from terrified to ecstatic . . . and when labour kicks into overdrive, so does the adrenaline.

Now, imagine the process of giving birth in a complicated COVID-19 world. You’re worried about virus exposure going into a hospital. You’re feeling alone, as family and friends are barred from visiting. You look to the nurses and doctors for reassurance, but you can’t even see their faces behind the masks.

Emily Carroll is passionate about bridging those gaps and putting mothers at ease. A former Cascades volleyball player (2013-2015) and UFV Nursing graduate, she’s spent just shy of three years on the maternity unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital. Surrey is a Level 3 maternity facility, providing specialized care to expectant mothers managing high-risk births.

“You walk in the delivery room, and instantly you are that woman’s partner,” says Carroll. “It’s a very intimate relationship that you need to build quickly. It’s a challenging position to be in, to build that relationship when she can’t even see what my face looks like (under the mask).

“We’re trying to be really active about showing them our badge with our picture, or pulling down our mask quickly to show them, ‘This is what I look like. I am smiling under this mask for you!’”

At the same time, the advent of COVID-19 naturally fuelled anxious thoughts in the back of Carroll’s mind.

What if I get sick… then I can’t work… then I have no money… and maybe I get my family sick… and what if I pass it on to colleagues or other patients… and what if it takes me down like it has some other young, healthy people?

“That sort of stuff runs through your head like mad initially,” Carroll says. “But we have no choice but to become better out of COVID. I think we’re only going to come out of this a better society and better health care providers, just doing our job better for the patient.”

"I love that I get to share literally the most intimate and exciting and scary moment of someone’s life"

Carroll certainly doesn’t shy away from a challenge. In June, she’ll start taking shifts at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver – it’s closer to home (she lives in the West End), and it’s an opportunity to work more with at-risk populations like IV drug users and teen moms.

“Those really pull at my heart,” she says. “I like to be able to help those challenged populations, because they’re so highly judged by so many.”

Carroll can’t imagine giving up “the craziness” that is the maternity unit at Surrey, though – she’ll split her time between Surrey and St. Paul’s, roughly 50-50.

“I love that I get to share literally the most intimate and exciting and scary moment of someone’s life,” she says.

“Right now with the no-visitor policy, the moms are only allowed one support person, and they can’t trade in or out. It’s challenging . . . but at the same time, we’ve seen these moms say, ‘I love that this is just about me and my baby, and nobody else is interrupting. I don’t have to cover myself while I breastfeed. I get to hold my baby for the entire time I’m here, rather than passing it around to a bunch of visitors.’

“And I think that’s a really cool thing that’s come out of COVID in maternity. It’s gone back to the roots, where it’s just about the mom and her partner, and the baby.”

* * * * * * *

As a chief medical resident of internal medicine at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH), overseeing a staff of 90 residents on TOH’s General Campus, Nicole Hryciw’s life got very complicated in early March when COVID-19 made its presence felt in the nation’s capital.

Part of her responsibilities include scheduling for the Clinical Teaching Unit, which sees resident doctors engage in supervised training in a hospital setting as part of their postgrad education.

When COVID-19 hit, several residents were returning from international travel and had to self-quarantine for 14 days. Others were exhibiting respiratory symptoms and thus were also unavailable, and testing turnaround times in those early days was significant.

“It was very hectic initially,” said Hryciw, who Cascades basketball fans know by her maiden name, Nicole Wierks. “Residents who were otherwise well and hadn’t been traveling had to step up and work quite a bit more.

“It’s probably the busiest I’ve ever been. But I really feel like I had an advantage going into medical school and then residency, being as busy as I was as an undergrad with basketball and school.”

Indeed, no one who’s familiar with Hryciw’s athletic and academic exploits at UFV will be remotely surprised she’s risen to the role of chief resident.

She was a five-year starter (2009-2014) and elite two-way performer on a powerhouse Cascades women’s basketball squad which made four straight trips to the Canada West Final Four and netted the program’s first U SPORTS national medal, a bronze, in 2014.

Her work in the classroom was arguably even more impressive. Upon graduating with her Bachelor of Science degree (biology major) in 2014, she was awarded the Governor General’s Silver Medal, recognizing the university’s highest GPA among undergrads over their last 90 credits. She’d posted a perfect 4.33 GPA during that stretch – five straight semesters of nothing but A-pluses. She completed med school at UBC, and is two years into her three-year residency in Ottawa.

"The original influx of patients early on, we weren’t sure how bad things were going to get"

Hryciw doesn’t treat COVID-19 cases on a daily basis – ideally, it should be very senior, experienced staff working with those patients. Her last rotation, though, was in the intensive care unit, and she worked with COVID-19 patients in that setting.

“The original influx of patients early on, we weren’t sure how bad things were going to get,” she says. “There was a bit of nerves around that, but it settles over time. It just becomes part of your day-to-day.

“To be perfectly honest, rather than worrying about myself, I probably worry about my (extended) family more (back home in Chilliwack). As a medically educated individual, I’m very aware of the precautions I need to take. I mostly just want to make sure my family is being taken care of, and that’s hard from a distance.”

This fall, Hryciw will apply for an area of specialization, and she’s hoping to get into general internal medicine – focusing on complex adult diseases, with an emphasis on teaching. She’d love to one day train residents on the Clinical Teaching Unit.

Throughout her educational journey, she’s benefitted greatly from connecting with mentors, including Cascades women’s basketball head coach Al Tuchscherer, who visited her in Ottawa in early March while in town for the U SPORTS national championships.

“Al and I always have such a good time catching up,” Hryciw says. “He was an important person in my life for a very long time. He’s always been supportive.

“If I can be that for somebody else, that’s exactly what I want to be doing with my life.”

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Matt Douma’s multifaceted nursing career has positioned him to battle COVID-19 on two fronts.

In his role as a clinical nurse educator at the Royal Alexandra Hospital emergency department in Edmonton, the UFV rowing alum’s day-to-day work involves training new nurses and delivering continuing education for veteran RNs. Beyond that, he’s part of an international collaborative effort to produce an open-access online curriculum to rapidly re-train health care professionals who don’t usually work in intensive care or emergency, so they can provide care during the pandemic.

Douma also serves as an adjunct assistant professor in critical care medicine at the University of Alberta, with expertise in resuscitation science. He’s leading another education and research project – also international in scope – to determine optimal methods for providing CPR and life support to COVID-19 patients.

“We find that with the COVID virus, it damages the lungs in such a way that people tend to do a better job of oxygenating when they’re lying flat on their stomachs,” he explains. “We’re not used to having people have sudden cardiac arrests or deteriorate in this position, so there’s some question as to how we should respond – whether we need to turn them over and do chest compressions, or can you save time and do the defibrillation and the chest compressions with them on their stomachs, compressing on their backs.

“We’re training people in this new form of CPR, and then also doing the scientific research that will demonstrate its effectiveness, or not.”

Douma, it’s safe to say, is a busy guy, and that’s before you even factor in that he and his partner, ER doctor Katherine Smith, have three kids under the age of six at home.

"At the time, I wasn’t really thinking very seriously that we would see it here. But they mentioned just how serious it was looking"

During his time at UFV, Douma was the Cascades’ top male rower. In 2005, he and teammate Gareth Newcombe became the first UFV rowers to earn selection to the prestigious Head of the Charles regatta in Boston, finishing second to Harvard University in the men's double. Douma was inducted into the Cascades Hall of Fame earlier this year.

He’s worked for Alberta Health Services since graduating from UFV in 2006. It was mid-February of this year when he began to realize COVID-19 could become a problem in Canada.

“I was speaking to a colleague I do research with who’s Chinese and lives in Beijing,” he recalls. “At the time, I wasn’t really thinking very seriously that we would see it here. But they mentioned just how serious it was looking, talking about the governmental controls that were being put in place, which made them think it was much more significant than any of us had believed.”

Having two front-line workers in the family is a juggling act at the best of times, but for Matt and Katherine, COVID-19 has necessitated forward-thinking conversations about the possibility of one of them potentially having to isolate from the rest of the family, or sending the kids to live with their grandparents for an extended period.

“We’ll do that if emergency departments are overrun and there’s not enough people to provide the care that’s required,” Douma says. “Then it will be the natural choice. We’ll know what we must do.”

It’s often said that through CPR, anyone can save a life. Douma notes that in the case of this pandemic, the lifesaving technique is a lot less dramatic, but no less vital.

“It seems like a tremendous sacrifice at the time, but by undertaking some very uncomfortable physical distancing and isolating yourself, you can take care of society’s most vulnerable.”

* * * * * * *

Emily Carroll’s apartment building is in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, surrounded by other towers. When she steps out onto the balcony in the evening, she’s struck by the eerie social-isolation quiet in the streets below.

But at 7 p.m. sharp, the balconies are flooded with people playing instruments, banging on pots and pans, rattling pop bottles filled with coins, and hollering at the top of their lungs in support of front-line workers during this pandemic. In terms of sheer volume, Carroll says it’s like being at a rock concert. Adding to the effect, there’s a guy in an adjacent building who brings a full drum kit out onto his balcony.

“It was very overwhelming the first few times I heard it,” she says. “Super-emotional. People are always very supportive of nurses – when you tell them you’re a nurse, they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool, good for you, thank you.’ But all of a sudden, I’m getting messages on social media from friends I haven’t talked to in forever, just thanking me for what I do.

“It’s really amazing that the world can show this little bit of bonding, despite not being able to be together.”

Hryciw has felt the generosity of businesses in Ottawa, which she calls “extraordinary.” Sometimes she gets so immersed in work, she doesn’t think to stop and eat. But a few nights back, someone had donated individually wrapped packages of trail mix, and she was able to munch on that as she went about her tasks to tide her over.

Douma’s kids love going outside with their pots and pans and spoons at 7 p.m. each night and clanging away. It’s important for them to be involved in this ritual to connect to the community, he says. “We’re feeling, if anything, a little bit bashful but appreciative of all the attention that health care professionals are getting.”

Wauthy and his Abbotsford ER colleagues opened letters from Grade 6 students at Colleen and Gordie Howe Middle School, expressing appreciation. Local restaurants and business owners have provided encouragement with takeout meals and gift cards, and police and fire department vehicles often circle past, flashing lights and sirens to show support.

“At the end of the day, this is what we signed up for,” Wauthy says, reflecting on his front-line role amidst the pandemic. “But knowing there are people out there recognizing and supporting you is huge.

“It hits home.”

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Dan Kinvig / UFV Athletics
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Header photo: Daniel Bergson / heroculture.com  |  Sports action photos: Bob McGregor / Tree Frog Imaging