The New Normal How COVID-19 is impacting life on and off campus for NCAA members

On March 12, our “normal” life of college athletics and collegiate sports medicine at Northwestern changed dramatically — as it did everywhere across the NCAA. Little did we know that over the next week, our new normal would change repeatedly.

For many of us, days seemed like weeks, with so much to respond to and so much breaking news to manage.

The earth seemed to move when, like others, Northwestern made the decision to send our student-athletes home as quickly and safely as possible. In a setting where we are accustomed to providing hands-on medical care and interacting with our patients (athletes) and co-workers, emptying our clinics over the course of 24 hours was remarkable, memorable and slightly traumatic.

One of the first challenges for each of us was attempting to coordinate patient care from a distance. With about half of each team roster managing active injuries, the athletic trainers faced an uphill battle. The first few days were spent creating at-home rehabilitation programs, scheduling outpatient rehabilitation appointments, and arranging for new physical and mental health providers near their homes. Our main point of emphasis was universal: We are here for you!

Given the well-developed relationship between athletic trainers and student-athlete, this delivery of health care from a distance wasn’t as anomalous for the athletes as we thought it might be. Our athletic training staff communicated repeatedly that we would remain responsive to their mental and physical health care needs day and night. We reminded them we remained “just a call away.” We wanted (and expected) to be the first call when they got sick (their first fear), sprained their ankle or had a question for one of our team physicians.

A strength of the athletic trainer as a health care provider has always been creativity. This pandemic made that skill essential to success.

We were creating at-home rehab programs that could require no equipment germane to the programs they walked away from in Evanston, Illinois. It’s been wonderful to see how detergent bottles, soup cans, bath towels and staircases have been turned into rehab tools by our innovative staff. We also have built off one of our staff strengths — collaboration — to share successes among athletic trainers and strength coaches to maximize the impact of each athlete’s program through shared solutions.

Technology also has been the friend of the athletic trainer.

We’ve completed numerous video-based communication “calls” to observe and educate our student-athletes in the rehabilitation process. We’ve remained on schedule with some longer-term projects by implementing movement screens via FaceTime with siblings or parents holding the phone. While it took about a week, we’ve used another secure, HIPAA-compliant platform to provide injury assessments as new injuries are now becoming more prevalent.

We’re learning how to give our patients more control and ownership over their own rehabilitation. They have responded very well. Daily interactions in the athletic training clinic have been replaced by weekly or biweekly calls. Our patients, who are as used to seeing our faces as much as we are theirs, are learning the necessity of deliberate communication. It’s impossible to stop into the AT clinic and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m feeling this or that” from California or Texas.

Not only have we figured out how to succeed with new surroundings and novel workflow, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as it pertains to resiliency.

We’ve realized the importance of maintaining our daily and weekly routines and have encouraged our student-athletes to create their own, as well. For our staff, gathering for recurring staff meetings via video technology has become a highlight of the week. Mini staff calls and virtual lunches have kept us connected on more of a personal level.

Beyond patient care, we have reidentified purpose and autonomy through work groups, goal groups and assigned administrative responsibilities. We’ve remained steadfast in these unit expectations, not allowing the distancing to be an excuse. Yet we are proud to have remained mindful, respectful, empathetic and supportive of each staff member’s individual challenges with working at home.

What have we learned about one another? We’re full of compassion and empathy.

The first question from colleagues on most phone calls is, “How are you doing?” The contact and interaction we were accustomed to giving and receiving, rooted in physical contact, is lost, of course. So, leading with a big smile means more. Authentic excitement to see each other over video really matters.

The unknowns of the pandemic, as well as the short- and long-term isolation, continue to challenge us daily. The many medical and societal unknowns remain. While it’s difficult to avoid dwelling on what might be, as leaders we have a responsibility to strategize about the new normal.

How will we be expected to provide a high level of health care when our student-athletes return to campus? There is a lot to learn and much to look ahead to. Collaborative decision-making and the collective patience to do what is best for the health and safety of our student-athletes must prevail.

But, in the meantime, we will maintain our positive attitudes, embrace our daily routines and continue to make fun of each other’s bizarre Zoom backgrounds, all while maximizing our commitment to our student-athletes’ health care.

It’s truly a pleasure to be able to serve our Northwestern student-athletes in this unprecedented time of need.

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