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From battling opponents, to battling Covid-19, ex-athletes in health care lean on training

Each day Meghan Fonfara goes into Erie County Medical Center with no idea what to expect.

A former member of the Buffalo Beauts, she is a registered nurse who works on a medical surgical telemetry floor at ECMC where, she explains, “We get anything and everything, but we specialize in transplant and bariatric surgery.”

The Covid-19 outbreak, though, impacts everyone at the hospital, and in medicine, there’s only so much that can be done to be ready for a crisis.

“I don’t think anyone is prepared for something like this, to be honest,” Fonfara said. “The only thing you can do is take what you have at hand, and work with what you have. We’re being told, ‘You need this kind of equipment’ and I have no idea what’s going to come in the next couple weeks.

“It is so intense. Not a lot of people in the world have experienced anything like this. We are all going to be learning together.”

Fonfara, who has yet to directly work with a Covid-19 patient, reassures herself by leaning on her medical training, which is paramount. She also considers what she learned as a high school, college and professional hockey player.

“Everyone’s got to work together to accomplish a goal,” said Fonfara, an Elma resident who played for the Beauts in 2018-19. “That’s what I’ve learned from playing sports, all my life, and being on a team and in a level of unity on my floor.”

Fonfara is one of the medical professionals who were college or pro athletes in Western New York who are helping the fight against a public health crisis.

Zach Ahart, former UB cross country runner, is now a resident in Cincinnati (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

In Cincinnati, former UB runner Zach Ahart is in his first year of residency in internal medicine.

“I’m on the front line, so to speak,” said Ahart, a former Mid-American Conference cross country champion and a Starpoint graduate. “As a resident, I don’t work in an emergency room, but if an ER resident feels a patient needs to be admitted, we go to the emergency room, examine a patient and admit them.”

In Philadelphia, Kim Dale is an intensive care nurse who works in outpatient neurology. The former University at Buffalo swimmer has been told that she could return a hospital intensive care unit soon.

“Some days, I have a little bit of anxiety about it, and some days, I know I have the training for it, and I’m not at all surprised I’d be asked to go back in,” said Dale, a 2010 UB graduate. “Going into nursing, you expect to take care of people in all types of situations.

"A pandemic never crossed my mind when I was training to be a nurse. Other disasters and whatnot cross your mind, but not this.”

Last year in Buffalo, Fonfara had a full nursing schedule in addition to playing hockey in her only professional season with the Beauts. She played high school hockey for Lancaster/Iroquois/Depew and played at Elmira College.

“Playing hockey with the Beauts and being a nurse was not easy,” Fonfara said. “But everything leading up to today prepared me for this.”

The team approach

Dale considered the emphasis on preparation as an athlete, the hours of practice that allowed her to compete in a swim meet. As she awaits word on if and when she will go into an ICU, she has reviewed protocols that have been put in place for ICU nursing, and the treatments, and reviewing ICU work she has already done.

“One thing we were taught was that the No. 1 thing you can do to be ready for competition is to be prepared, to put the training in,” Dale said. “Put everything into place and what you can control to get the best outcome.”

Being on a team helped teach Fonfara how to handle pressure situations, but instead of being the player who handles the puck with the game on the line, Fonfara is part of a medical team that negotiates life-or-death scenarios.

“In scary situations, like now, when it comes down to the last minute of a game, you have to be calm and collected, just like now,” Fonfara said. “You can’t freak out. You have to do what you can and what is in your control. That’s what hockey taught me and that’s what sports taught me. When we have a rapid response, I find myself handling it well. You can’t freak out, or everyone else around you is going to freak out.”

Christian Muller, a former UB swimmer, is a resident doctor with a family medicine practice in New Jersey. He leans on his time-management skills and his ability to self-accommodate in order to navigate a public health crisis.

“It’s an ever-changing world right now,” said Muller, a 2013 UB graduate. “With sports and in a race, you need to learn how to adapt. In swimming, you think about what you’re doing in practice versus what you’re doing in competition. If something goes wrong you say, ‘okay, I need to change what I am doing to keep this on track and to get better.’

“In this case, it’s to ensure the safety of the public.”

Preparing for a crisis

Shanté White is an anesthesiology resident physician in Rochester, and she is a former MAC champion in the hammer throw at UB. She has a smaller case load now that many elective surgeries have been canceled, but is preparing to work in the ICU if there is an increase in Covid-19 cases in Rochester requires that level of care.

“I can’t say if we’re prepared or underprepared, but as soon as all of this started happening, the chief resident and our attendings did a really good job at giving us direction of how we can help, and how we can keep ourselves and our patients safe,” said Moore, a 2012 UB graduate. “It would be unfair to say we’re underprepared, because we are not. We’re making the best of the resources we have, and we’re doing that. We are having a positive, proactive response to it.

“We’re coming together, and we’re trying to figure out the best way to keep ourselves safe while taking care of patients.”

Ahart admits that by some measure, there is some fear that comes in working in medicine during a public health crisis. He’s seen what’s happened in other countries, and has heard many stories of health-care workers becoming ill.

“But it’s our job,” Ahart said. “We do what we’ve got to do, and we try to stay as healthy as possible.”

Advice for others

When it comes to dealing with Covid-19, Ahart prescribes common sense. Pay attention to the news. Keep your distance from people. Limit travel. Wash your hands diligently.

“And try to live your best life,” Ahart said. “Don’t go stir crazy. We’ll get through this. It can get scary to watch the news, but our practices so far, based on what scientists are telling us, it sounds like we’ve already made quite an impact on the spread of things. And keep this up.”

Dale is now an avid runner and a triathlete, and she emphasizes cultivating positivity.

“Take an hour or two out of the day to be by yourself, find a way to meditate and get back in the zone,” Dale said. “If you find something to escape for an hour or two, and get away from the negative news, things get better.”

Like Ahart, White reiterates much of the clinical advice that’s being emphasized. But she also takes the team-first approach in the fight against the pandemic.

“Support each other,” White said. “Realize that the doctors on the front line are the best to take care of these patients, and the best thing for you to do is to do the things that will help prevent more cases.”

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