Three future nurses were playing lacrosse for Villanova, without even the possibility of a thought of how much 2020 could be different than 2019.
They weren’t stars. Maybe that was a clue to their future, how these three women could be part of their team’s leadership structure, even without being major Big East goal-scorers or even starters.
One was an artist, and like a mother figure, making sure everyone stayed organized. Two had transferred in, became three-year roommates. The third girl, Graz, lost playing time when she decided to switch midstream to an undergraduate nursing track. Christine Graziano couldn’t make every practice, but she wouldn’t give up on lacrosse.
“She always had note cards with her all the time,’’ said Villanova women’s lacrosse coach Julie Young. “All these guys were always studying on the bus.”
Alexis Leighton, now a nursing student at NYU. Nicole Lee, studying the same subject but a sequence ahead at George Washington University. And Graziano, note cards gone, on the front lines of the coronavirus battle, at a hospital in Morristown, N.J.
"As a captain, I took pride in it, to make sure I was listening to every person who came to me for any reason. I kind of wanted to be that mediator.”
Their story isn’t a unique one. Truth is, they represent thousands of recent college athletes now working in the medical field, a global coronavirus pandemic now the opposition. It’s almost a cliche to suggest skills learned throughout sports apply now in nursing. These three women will tell you: It’s true.
“Every member of the health-care team has a role, just as an attacker would in an offensive set,’’ Graziano said, pointing out that tasks come with each role, “like an attacker who needs to set an off-ball pick.”
The competitive factor comes into play now, Graziano added. Extra reps away from practice? Reviewing weaknesses with coaches? Not much different than spending a shift in a surgical access unit with an experienced nurse who showed Graziano tips and tricks for a successful IV insertion. Always something to learn, Graziano said, to practice, to perfect.
Her job has changed to working as a registered nurse in a designated COVID-19 medical surgical unit at Morristown Medical Center.
The biggest challenge right now, Graziano said, is just limiting her potential exposure to the virus. Normally, she would be visiting each of her patients’ rooms every hour of a 12-hour shift. Now, she can’t walk in and just ask if they are OK or if they need anything. In her unit, each patient has been given an iPad and encouraged to FaceTime their nurses. (Usually, she knocks on the door and asks if they would like to FaceTime with her.)
The biggest mental challenge? What’d you expect. Fear of contracting the virus, “or possibly spreading it to my family.”
Graziano uses the term “very meticulous and methodical manner” in describing how she dons her personal protective equipment. You think you wash your hands a lot? Changing into and out of scrubs as she gets into her unit is the new norm.
“I then shower in a designated shower immediately after I arrive at home, and wash my clothes as well,’’ Graziano said.
She explains all this in texts to her former teammates.
“Constant communication,’’ Graziano said. “A few group texts.”
“It’s very different,’’ Lee said of the tone of everything now. “We’re reading and seeing from politicians and health professionals, but hearing from our friends who are actually working on coronavirus units, there’s definitely tension and fear. Do they have enough equipment? It’s all very intense, because of how fast this spread.”
“I’m always talking to Nicole,’’ Leighton, now at NYU, said of her former roommate. “I ask her a lot of questions.”
With Graziano, “I feel bad bothering her, but I always want to know how she’s doing. She’ll tell us. It’s scary. It’s tough emotionally. She was just sending texts. She was having trouble breathing through her double mask today.”
Part of their education now is seeing all their teammate is grappling with. Several older ex-teammates also are working on front-line coronavirus units. Lee, who had transferred to Villanova from Delaware, isn’t there yet, studying at GW, which has turned chaotic, since you need strict clinical and lab hours to graduate, but everything is online now, with virtual meetings going on with clinical and lab instructors.
There has been a request for volunteers to help at GW, Lee said, but she has a family member who is immuno-compromised so is being careful, now living at home in McLean, Va. Her curriculum already has incorporated coronavirus care.
Leighton, not a starter at Villanova, was a captain. She sees the parallels with nursing.
“The biggest thing is patient advocacy,’’ Leighton said. “Everyone’s experience is unique. As a captain, I took pride in it, to make sure I was listening to every person who came to me for any reason. I kind of wanted to be that mediator.”
Her lectures now, Leighton said, “Any question, it all turns into coronavirus conversations.”
She knows she has to wait to get on the front lines. Friends and family turn to her with medical questions.
“It’s kind of tough,’’ Leighton said. “I don’t have all the answers right now. I’m trying to get answers. It’s tough when people start having symptoms, they don’t want to bother their doctor, they come to you.”
They weren’t stars at Villanova. But when the Wildcats finished 10-8 in 2019, it represented the first 10-win season in the program’s history. They all felt they’d been part of building something. Their coach would tell you that a player might not be a big person on the field but could be really big off the field.
Like Leighton, for instance, as a captain.
“She made sure the players who weren’t playing a ton felt important,’’ Young said, noting how Leighton had been on a business track, then decided she’d go into nursing. Leighton had basically given up lacrosse after transferring in from Holy Cross, where she had played. But her new roommate Lee was on the team, so even getting up for 6 a.m. workouts — she found she missed them.
“She basically contacted me the middle of sophomore year, said, ‘I miss lacrosse. Do you need anybody?’ ‘’ Villanova’s coach said. “She was already on campus. She worked her butt off, got back in shape, did everything we asked her to do.”
Lee, already on the team, “really super sweet kid, worked really hard,’’ Young said. “She saw some minutes senior year. She worked hard no matter what.”
Graziano is on the front lines now because she was the one in the nursing program as an undergraduate. “A kid who wanted to show she could do both,’’ her coach said.
The parallels, sports to nursing, as Young sees it, “They’ll all had a lot of time learning how to grind through stuff, understanding the sacrifice.”
Young mentions a former manager, Caroline Rizzo, now working in the emergency room at Massachusetts General, in her first year of graduate school to become a physician’s assistant. She had played as a freshman before Young got there, then transitioned to manager. “Best manager I ever had,’’ Young said. “It was her understanding, I love being part of this team, this is a role I can do. She came to every single practice. She always wanted to go into medicine.”
No regrets, Graziano said about her career choice.
“No other profession presents the ability to help bring a child into the world in one room, and comfort a sick patient in another room,’’ Graziano said.
Meditation has helped her acknowledge and deal with “a whirlwind of thoughts,’’ Graziano said, most helpful now.
And one recent day, she scheduled her lunch hour with a specific purpose in mind. Current Villanova lacrosse were getting together for a Zoom meeting with their coaches. One of the seniors slipped the meeting code to some alumni. Word got around.
“I was able to ‘crash’ the Zoom meeting … even though I was at work,’’ Graziano said.
She loved seeing the confused looks on the faces of current players and even her former coach.
“There were like six or seven of them,’’ Young said. “Oh my God, you made my week.”
It was fun, the grads said, to see their coach focus as additional faces showed up. “Julie was an incredibly good sport about our joke,’’ Graziano said.
A laugh within a scary time, healthy for them all.
“I am so grateful for the support and love I have received from all my teammates,” Graziano said.
“It’s funny because they’re all similar personalities,” Young said of her alums in the medical field. “Just hard workers, super organized, able to handle the balance.”
They weren’t stars? That definition obviously has changed a bit lately, all over this earth.