When the “Mama Docs Run This” Facebook group was formed, it was originally intended to serve as a way for members to share the unique challenges faced by women who juggle three time-demanding roles: mother, physician, and endurance athlete. At first, the group shared tips and tricks–how to structure a training schedule around shift work, for example, or recommendations for jogging strollers. Eventually the kinship of the group led to in-person meet-ups, especially when traveling to a member’s city for a destination race. Sight unseen, Mama Docs have formed relay teams to compete at events like Escape from Alcatraz and the USA Track & Field National Masters Championship.
When COVID-19 hit, the group evolved once more–this time, to a support network for the physicians working on the front lines. Though members of the group are still cheering each other on for training-related victories, Mama Docs are also using the platform to exchange information and offer encouragement for a totally different type of endurance event: working on the front lines of a global pandemic. We checked in with two members of Mama Docs Run This to learn more about how a connection between endurance athletes is serving as a touchstone in challenging times:
Dr. Aixa Alvarez, Rehab Medical Director at Metropolitan Methodist Hospital, San Antonio, TX
Dr. Rhea Johnson, Private practice physician in Katonah, NY
How has your work changed in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Johnson: My work has become entirely telehealth, virtual contact with all patients, 95% of which is done from home with three children and a working husband at home, too. I have also been volunteering my time on the weekends, conducting testing at a COVID drive-through in the county hardest hit right outside of New York City.
Alvarez: We initially prepared ourselves to see numbers and a surge in patients like New York City experienced, but fortunately San Antonio didn’t. Still, we continue to take new precautions, such as masking staff and patients. We have a ton of teleconferences in order to be up to date with CDC guidelines and what to do when confronted with a positive COVID patient on the unit.
Is there a particular experience from the last few months that stands out?
Alvarez: I was part of the recovery process of a patient that contracted COVID-19 while working as a certified nursing assistant. She was one of 28 employees and 74 residents that contracted the virus in the skilled nursing facility where she worked; 18 died. It was gut-wrenching to hear her tell her story and to know that she contracted it the same way that I was helping her. She spent 1 month and 2 days in the hospital; 16 of those days she was intubated. She had a 6 year-old son at home waiting to see her, who they told she was “at work” still so he wouldn’t worry. When she went home, we had a large send-off parade from her room to outside the hospital, where she was reunited with her family.
Johnson: My husband became quite ill with COVID-19 very early in the shelter-in-place period. I ran a COVID unit out of my bedroom. I was most concerned about becoming ill at same time as he was, because no one would have been able to come in to help my three children here with us. I did and do my best to take proper precautions and try to not have anxiety about what I cannot control.
How have your fellow Mama Docs helped you cope during this time?
Johnson: We keep each other out there showing up for small or big moments of training and life with pictures, words of courage, persistence, empathy, and wisdom. They get it; we are all in it. While my husband was sick, I had a thousand-plus MDRT members on call for support. They checked in daily, sent my family meals and flowers, and even sent a bottle of champagne on our anniversary. I saved it to celebrate his return to health and to celebrate keeping my children, my patients, and myself healthy despite the presence of COVID in our home.
Alvarez: They are always a ray of sunshine when you need it most. I’ve witnessed some camaraderie in this time, that reminds you of the good in the world. Mr. Rogers once said, “Look for the helpers…” and Mama Docs are helpers by nature! We had women sending others masks, gloves, care packages for women taking care of sick spouses at home. Many women are working long shifts & having to be away from their families. It’s amazing to have an entire network of intelligent, knowledgeable women at your disposal.
The Mama Docs Run This group came together over a shared love of endurance sports. What role does training play in the life of a frontline worker right now?
Alvarez: Training right now means staying somewhat fit, but not trying to achieve any PRs. I think most of us are giving ourselves a bit of grace in this pandemic. Competing is nowhere on my radar anytime soon. I actually really like the stress relief of not having to train for anything at the moment. I know there will be plenty of time for that later.
Johnson: My free time went from heavy training to disinfecting my home and preparing for a full day of work and homeschool before my kids woke up. I have continued to train a bit through road and a little trail running. My lungs are not the same–five mile runs feel like a half marathon, my paces are slower, and there is a palpable heaviness in my legs, but I keep showing up because the road doesn’t know or mind. Continuing to show up to take care of myself and fill up with self-care before I start every day of pouring out care for everyone else is essential to get through this long haul.