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From the field to the front line: Senior college athletes jump into service at area hospitals

MacKenzie Garvey, a graduate nurse from UMass Dartmouth, works at the Boston Hope Medical Center.
MacKenzie Garvey, a graduate nurse from UMass Dartmouth, works at the Boston Hope Medical Center.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

MacKenzie Garvey wakes up at 4 p.m. at the Seaport Hotel and gets ready for work three days a week. She puts on her scrubs and walks out into the empty Boston streets.

Her 10-minute walk to the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center is the start of a 7 p.m.-7 a.m. work day at the Boston Hope Medical Center, a 1,000-bed field hospital run by Partners Healthcare for coronavirus patients in the final stages of recovery. She worked as a certified nursing assistant, aiding chronically ill patients with their daily routines at a Plymouth nursing home before she volunteered to work at Boston Hope.

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Garvey, a UMass-Dartmouth senior and thrower on the women’s track and field team, is now a graduate nurse after an executive order signed by Governor Charlie Baker allowed college seniors who are medical students to receive their certifications early and work in healthcare facilities as long as they are supervised throughout the duration of their shifts.

The 22-year-old Plymouth North graduate assesses patients’ conditions, asks basic symptoms questions, administers medication, and monitors them throughout her 12-hour shift. Her work is arduous, but recoveries instill optimism.

“It’s just really nice to go into a patient’s room and ask them how they’re feeling and they tell you that they’re feeling really good,” Garvey said. “Then you come in the next day and they got discharged. It’s just really nice to see the progression of people of how they really are recovering and ready to go home. It kind of gives everybody a little bit of hope.”

“It’s just really nice to go into a patient’s room and ask them how they’re feeling and they tell you that they’re feeling really good. Then you come in the next day and they got discharged.

Hope helps her. UMass-Dartmouth’s track and field season was canceled because of the pandemic. Her pinning ceremony was supposed to be Thursday and graduation on Friday, but instead, the Plymouth resident is sequestered in a hotel room and hasn’t seen her family since her first shift April 24.

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UMass Dartmouth senior thrower MacKenzie Garvey has transitioned from track & field to the front line, working at Boston Hope Medical Center.
UMass Dartmouth senior thrower MacKenzie Garvey has transitioned from track & field to the front line, working at Boston Hope Medical Center.Broglio/UMass Dartmouth athletics

Senior student-athletes working in the healthcare field have lost their graduations, senior weeks, and final season of organized athletics, but instead of sulking, they have exchanged helmets and gloves for protective masks and face shields. Early mornings and late nights on practice fields and in gyms have been replaced by shifts on COVID-19 floors.

They rally with different teammates now, not in stadiums or on sidelines, but in the hallways of hospitals with healthcare workers fighting against an invisible opponent. They are Boston’s college athletes on the front lines fighting COVID-19.

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Ally Fecteau and Laura List are Simmons University nursing majors and roommates who joined the front lines as soon as their sports seasons ended. Fecteau left for Miami on March 6 with the crew team to train and watched the pandemic develop across the world. When the team learned the season was canceled, its seniors took to the water for one final row.

“This isn’t how we wanted to end, but at least we got an end together rather than apart,” Fecteau said.

Fecteau returned to Boston March 14 and began her first 3-11 p.m. shift at Lawrence General Hospital the following week. She arrived to something she had never experienced since she started working there in May 2019. Approximately 20 minutes into her shift, LGH experienced its first Code Blue — when a patient goes into respiratory arrest — with a COVID-19 patient. Fecteau hadn’t even met with the charge nurse before workers surrounded the room, wondering what to do, concerned with how they could protect themselves. Healthcare professionals were still uncertain how to react when treating COVID-19 patients.

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“Everyone on the floor is at least outside the room, standing there, at least seeing what they can do to help, but . . . everybody on the floor just froze and it was like ‘Can we even go in the room? What do I wear? What do I need?’” Fecteau said.

The patient recovered, but Fecteau’s shocking experience is similar to many healthcare workers treating this virus.

“That was kind of the beginning of all these new procedures that you need to think of. Nobody ever had to think like that before on ‘what do I need to do in the middle of this patient dying to keep myself safe?’”

A former Bedford resident, Simmons University swimmer Laura List is now  working at Boston Medical Center as a certified nursing assistant.
A former Bedford resident, Simmons University swimmer Laura List is now working at Boston Medical Center as a certified nursing assistant.Simmons University athletics

List is a CNA at Boston Medical Center working with COVID-19 patients. She started in January during Simmons’s swimming season. List completed her senior season, but the NCAA qualifiers were canceled. She says she has items in her locker she won’t retrieve.

A former Bedford resident, she went home to Hermosa Beach, Calif., for spring break, but flew back to Boston to work at BMC. She usually entered the hospital through its Emergency Department. Now, she walks in through a less-trafficked entrance as a precaution.

“I would rather be working, be helping in action. I have this education, these skills that not everyone has and I felt like they were be at better use in Boston than at home,” List said.

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She is working close to 40 hours a week, now that finals have ended, in the place the Globe called ‘the heart of the coronavirus storm.’

“From what I’m seeing, [it’s] all COVID to me,” she said. “It seems like the whole hospital is COVID.”

Grant Callanan, a senior midfielder on the men’s lacrosse team at Curry, is working as a critical care technician in the cardiac ICU at Mass. General. He recalled the first week of March, and initial spread of the coronavirus. “It just really smacked everyone in the face in a week, it seemed like,” said Callanan, who grew up in Tewksbury. “There was talk when I was coming into work that this would be coming into the United States. Nobody thought it was going to blow up like it really did.”

Curry senior midfielder Grant Callanan of Tewksbury is working in the cardiac ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Curry senior midfielder Grant Callanan of Tewksbury is working in the cardiac ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital.Curry College Athletics

Boston’s student-athlete nurses are struggling with a less-than-adequate supply of personal protective equipment. At BMC, List and staff members get plastic containers to preserve their N95 masks by holding the container in front of their faces, placing the mask in it, and wrapping its cord around the lid to minimize contamination. Fecteau gets one N95 per shift and has to label it with her name and floor in case it has to be sanitized with UV light by a cleaning crew.

They both keep their scrubs in their cars for up to two weeks at a time as a precaution so they don’t infect their other two roommates, one of whom is a cancer survivor.

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Long-term care facilities in Massachusetts account for a majority of the state’s coronavirus deaths — 2,739 of the state’s 4,552 coronavirus deaths as of May 7. Nicole Quinn understands this. The UMass-Darmouth lacrosse player and nursing major is a CNA who started working with COVID-19 patients when her season was canceled March 7 after just four games. She commutes 45 minutes from Plymouth to work 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. shifts at an overflow facility set up at a former New Bedford rehab center for patients admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital.

But she also works once or twice a week at a Plymouth nursing home on a floor with dementia patients. She and her colleagues face a dual challenge — keeping an at-risk population safe while helping them understand what’s happening outside their walls. The dementia patients, Quinn says, aren’t cognizant of why they have to see visitors through windows.

“They don’t really know that there’s a pandemic going on and they can’t really go out and see their family,” Quinn said.

Nursing home staff sanitizes boxes of snacks that are delivered to mitigate risk. They develop activities to keep patients entertained and active, but it’s difficult to foster a sense of community when senior citizens with pre-existing conditions — the group most vulnerable to COVID-19 — are confined to their rooms.

Lacrosse, for Quinn, is a distant memory.

“I kind of knew, having this happen, I would need to put in some time, pick up more hours and kind of make sure I’m there to take care of all my patients, especially at the nursing home,” Quinn said. “With them not having visitors, you kind of need to be that emotional support system they don’t get from their family anymore.”

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The student-athletes who have been fighting a global pandemic while finishing their last month of classes, taking final exams, and preparing for their nursing boards unwind differently.

Quinn is in a Snapchat group with her lacrosse team. When she needs a boost, she sends them a message and gets funny memes in return.

Garvey FaceTimes with her friends and family and watches reality dating shows on Netflix. Kate McDonald, a UMass-Dartmouth senior and softball pitcher working with coronavirus patients at South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, made a TikTok with teammates on a day off in which they played catch with cleaning products.

Fecteau and List enjoy cooking. After they took their last final exam, they celebrated with cupcakes. Fecteau also celebrated her 22nd birthday April 19.

“Food is definitely a coping mechanism,” Fecteau said.

This time in their lives was supposed to be full of senior days, playoff wins, and graduations, but the only pomp and circumstance happens when a patient goes home.

“It’s definitely devastating. It’s not only graduation that we’re missing but these past two months of going out with your friends and making those last memories,” McDonald said.

But they want to help, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. The lasting memories now are with the patients for whom they care.

“I feel like we’re being thrown into the fire as new grads, but I feel like starting our career like this will always be in the backs of our heads,” Garvey said.

MacKenzie Garvey makes the daily walk from the Seaport Hotel to the Boston Hope Medical Center..
MacKenzie Garvey makes the daily walk from the Seaport Hotel to the Boston Hope Medical Center..Jim Davis/Globe Staff