Former Valpo Student-Athletes Combat COVID-19 as Frontline Workers
In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, former Valparaiso University student-athletes working in the medical field across the country have gone beyond the expected in their efforts to combat the virus and treat patients in need of their care.
Numerous former Valpo student-athletes transitioned from their normal areas of medical expertise to assist on COVID-19 units and worked additional hours to help the fight against the virus.
Tristan De La Rosa ’18 serves as an emergency-room nurse in Garden Grove, California at the biggest trauma hospital in Orange County, located next to Disneyland. The former Valpo football player has worked at least four shifts per week since the beginning of March, including 10 16-hour shifts. At one point, he worked 11 shifts consecutively.
“At the height of the pandemic, our whole hospital was maxed out, so we had to hold patients in the ER,” De La Rosa said. “We had patients in the lobby, and we did everything we could because the hospital was completely full with nowhere to place them. We were putting up tents and rolling out tarps. Our staff members couldn’t see their families, but fortunately I live on my own so I didn’t have to worry about that. It was also very sad that we couldn’t allow patients’ family members to come in, but we had to do everything we could to keep them safe.”
Former Valpo women’s soccer player Tess Barrett ’19 recently reached the one-year mark at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where she works in a gastrointestinal surgical oncology unit. The unit was briefly transformed into a COVID-19 unit, while Barrett and other nurses also spent time floating around the hospital to assist other COVID-19 units.
“It was pretty intense; the time as a whole was unpredictable,” Barrett said. “We’re fortunate to have so many resources at Northwestern; we had good amounts of PPE (personal protective equipment) and tons of support from our staff. We all had to work together as a team, and it was a whole new ballgame, whether you had 30 years of experience or six months of experience.”
After starting her nursing career in an adult emergency room, Alyssa Meade ’17 Clark pursued her passion of pediatric care at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in downtown Detroit. Clark is currently pursuing her doctorate of nursing at the University of Michigan. During the pandemic, the former Valpo bowler moved to a sister hospital that serves adult patients, Sinai Grace Hospital in Detroit.
“They were hit pretty hard and needed extra help,” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience to transition to the adult hospital and see first hand what it was like dealing with the virus and how much it was impacting everyone. I was honored to be able to help, and thankfully after about a month and a half, it started to get better. This challenging time showed how much everyone can come together. A few of my coworkers and I made the transition together, and everyone was so appreciative of our help. It was a crazy experience that exemplifies the importance of teamwork.”
After completing her nursing degree, former Valpo women’s basketball player Annemarie Hamlet ‘17 Hanson accepted a position at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. She works as a registered nurse in oncology and cancer care on the stem-cell transplant floor. In late March, she volunteered to leave her floor and assume a position on a COVID-19 floor, where she worked for two months.
“At the beginning, it was nerve-racking because all of us were throwing ourselves into the unknown,” Hanson said. “It made sense for me to volunteer to move floors since I live with my husband (former Valpo baseball player Jake Hanson ‘16) and we don’t have children at home. I didn’t have to worry about spreading the virus to high-risk family members. Nobody was ready for it at first, but Northwestern did a great job supplying us with what we needed.”
Nick Davidson ’17 has spent the last three years working in the cardiac intensive care unit at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis. The former Valpo basketball player has contributed to heart transplants, kidney transplants and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a treatment that is used for COVID-19 patients with severe respiratory distress.
“We take blood that would normally go into the patient’s lungs, put it through a massive filter and give it back to them,” Davidson said. “It’s one method we can use to give our patients’ lungs a rest. It’s been interesting to see how much better we are at treating COVID-19 patients compared to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic. In the state of Indiana and across the country, we’ve gotten a lot better at recognizing the symptoms and giving people the treatment that they need.”
Former Valpo softball player Carly Trepanier ’19 has worked as a nurse at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois, for just over a year. She specializes in stroke patients and the older adult population on the medical surgery and neurosurgery floor. Advocate Christ Medical Center is a 700-bed hospital, and at one time they had nearly 300 COVID-19 patients, so about half of their units were dedicated strictly to COVID-19.
“My unit never turned into a COVID unit, but we took the responsibilities of other units that were instead treating COVID patients,” Trepanier said. “I also picked up a lot of extra shifts on the COVID units to help the staff there. It was pretty intense at that time. Nobody was allowed in the room besides the nurse, so the nurse had to do everything from taking out the trash to cleaning the patient to bringing food in, and we were only allowed to go in for a maximum of 10 minutes at a time. After my first day on the COVID unit, I went home and broke down because I felt so terribly for my patients. Since then, it’s gotten a lot better and we have a better handle on the situation.”
Kayla Krueger ’20 works as a nurse on the behavior floor of OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center in Champaign, Illinois. The former Valpo women’s golfer has seen the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of her patients.
“I work most often with mentally-ill patients as opposed to physically-ill patients, so the impact on my work has been different,” Krueger said. “All of the time in isolation and quarantine has caused many patients’ anxiety and depression to skyrocket. Some patients are fearful of the virus, some are distressed about the social isolation and others have financial-related stress due to the pandemic. Our job is to help them get back on their feet. We also work with social workers to help our patients find jobs and find ways they can improve their mental health outside of our hospital setting.”
After completing her nursing degree, former Valpo softball player Sam Stewart ’17 accepted a position at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois, where her mother has worked for over 10 years. Stewart is a nurse on a post-operative surgical unit providing orthopedic care.
“At the beginning of the outbreak, they completely stopped surgeries,” Stewart said. “They dedicated the whole floor above mine to COVID-19 patients, and we ended up having to take the patients they couldn’t take. We started seeing neuro and stroke patients. Now, we’ve gotten back to some level of normalcy.”
Former Valpo swimmer Lauren Nettenstrom ’04 works on the research side of the medical field, and her work has had a direct impact on COVID-19 research. She serves as an instrumentation technologist at Carbone Cancer Center Flow Cytometry Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Flow cytometry is a cell analysis technique that detects and measures the physical and chemical characteristics of a population of cells or particles.
“These instruments are very important because we don’t know much about COVID, and research is happening at such an accelerated pace,” Nettenstrom said. “People who were focused on different viruses or different parts of the immune system are turning their attention to COVID. What part of the immune system do we need to target with the vaccine? What type of vaccine would be useful? It’s been interesting to see all the collaboration. We have 200 different labs at the university that are using our lab and our core facility. We make sure to keep our instruments going so they’re functioning properly and the researchers can get high-quality data.”
Even medical professionals who haven’t directly treated COVID-19 patients have had their work impacted by the pandemic. Former Valpo women’s soccer player Eva Schneider ’19 serves as a pediatric neonatology nurse at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, where they have not had any babies test positive for COVID-19.
“If a mother comes in with signs or symptoms, we’ll put the baby in a negative pressure room, which pushes all of the air out,” she said. “At that point we wait for the tests to come back, and all of them have been negative. One major impact on our unit has been visitor restrictions. We are allowing two visitors, which are normally mom and dad, and those visitors can’t change. At one point, only one parent could visit overnight, which put a strain on some families. Because of the visitor restrictions, we have children who are nearly six months old and haven’t met their grandparents or siblings.”
For former Valpo swimmer Erin Tobias ’00, the pandemic led to an increase in trauma patients at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis.
“I don’t work directly with COVID patients, but we have been impacted because we’ve seen a jump in trauma patients due to stay-at-home guidelines,” Tobias said. “We’ve seen an uptick in patients with injuries from home-improvement projects, so it’s been an aggressive trauma season. We’ve also had some difficulty with getting transfers into our hospital. We take orthopedic trauma patients from all over the state, and in some cases, there have been delays in those transfers due to COVID restrictions.”
One consensus among former Valpo student-athletes working in medical professions across the country is that their Valpo experience helped them gain life skills such as time management and team building that have benefited them in their current profession.
“I’m so thankful to have gone to a school like Valpo,” De La Rosa said. “Some of my coworkers have a tough time learning the work habits that I developed during my time as a student and football player at Valpo. I learned so much about pushing and challenging myself. I can’t thank the University enough for giving me such good values. The curriculum in the nursing program is very good, and our professors really cared and had good hearts. They taught us how to do what is best for the patient.”
Davidson loved his Valpo experience so much that he couldn’t stay away. He’s enrolled in the University yet again, this time pursing his doctorate in nursing practice.
“One of the main reasons I wanted to go back to school at Valpo was my experience there as an undergrad,” Davidson said. “I don’t think there’s another school that would have prepared me as well as Valpo did to get to where I am today. From an education perspective and from a networking perspective, Valpo has been great for me.”
Hanson’s Valpo ties run deep as both of her sisters, her husband and her brother-in-law are all also former Valpo student-athletes. Her younger sister Meredith Hamlet ‘19 and her older sister Elizabeth Hamlet ’14 Capobianco played women’s basketball, Elizabeth’s husband Bobby played men’s basketball and Hanson’s husband Jake played baseball.
“Jake and I talk about Valpo a lot, and every time we look back, we have nothing but good memories,” Hanson said. “We made lasting friendships with other members of our teams. With all three sisters going through Valpo, it definitely became another home for our family. We all three made so many great memories there, and Elizabeth and I met our husbands there. Valpo will always have a special place in my heart.”
Another theme among former Valpo student-athletes in the medical field is how understanding their coaches were with their academic priorities and how accommodating their professors were with the demands of competing in a sport at the Division-I level.
“I cannot say enough good things about Valpo’s nursing program,” Trepanier said. “My professors were amazing, and many of them came to my games. Softball is what helped get me through undergrad. I could go to practice after those hard, stressful days and be totally immersed in my sport for two and a half hours. It relieved stress to go out and do what I love. Coach Kate Stake was always an encouraging voice. She was such an important part of me graduating in four years with a degree in nursing while playing softball. That doesn’t happen a lot of other places.”
Barrett, a self-proclaimed “chronically-injured athlete,” completed her clinicals in a walking boot during her sophomore year, exemplifying her resilient attitude. Stewart praised the compassion of her coaches in understanding that she would have to miss a few nonconference softball games for clinicals. Davidson fondly recalled the challenges of reading textbooks on bumpy bus rides and trying to connect to WiFi on team flights. And all of them credited their Valpo roots for helping prepare them for the challenges presented in their careers, including the latest unprecedented obstacle of fighting COVID-19.
“When we beat Dayton, that meant more than anything from an athletic standpoint,” said De La Rosa, referring to the Valpo football team’s 8-7 upset of the Flyers on Nov. 18, 2017, to clinch the program’s first winning season since 2003. “That last win was the toughest one I ever had. It made me realize that I can do anything. There’s nothing I can’t accomplish, nothing I can’t learn. That game sums it up for all of us and shows how the lessons we learned as student-athletes at Valpo have impacted the rest of our lives.”