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Runners on the Frontlines: “This Situation is Like a Marathon I Have Been Training For My Entire Life”

Even with these new, scary challenges in their jobs, running still plays a role in the lives of these female physicians as they fight on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

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A little more than a month ago, Gay Purcell was having the time of her life as a spectator at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta.

There she had met up with a bunch of women from Mama Docs Run This, an online community for women physicians who are also runners and mothers, to cheer on the mama docscompeting that day. Purcell, herself, is an internal medicine physician.

When they will get another chance to meet face-to-face again is anyones guess. It wasn’t long after that the novel coronavirus pandemic began sweeping through. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic grows across the country, female physicians are among those bravely leading the charge in their communities to save lives and help slow the disease. 

Not only are they leaders in medicine, many are also mothers and accomplished distance runners, who now rely on running to cope with the intense stress of taking care of patients and their own families.

Their running dreams are put on hold to listen to patient fears and shape policies to protect their fellow healthcare workers. But even with these new, scary challenges in their jobs, running still plays a role in their lives as they fight on the frontlines of the pandemic. 

Making Time For Their Patients

Instead of training for the London Marathon this spring as she had planned, infectious disease physician and medical director of occupational health at Michigan Medicine, Dr. Emily Stoneman has spent the past month logging 18 hour workdayswith no end in sight to help manage the COVID-19 crisis in her community. 

I have an enormous amount of responsibility in developing policies and procedures to properly care for our patients and to keep our thousands of healthcare workers safe,says Stoneman, 43, a mother of two young children. 

The biggest challenge in her job is keeping up with the ever-changing recommendations from public health officials on how to care for infected patients and protect medical staff during the pandemic. 

I spend a great deal of time responding to questions from concerned healthcare workers, and sometimes there are no good answers,she says.

In recent weeks, Purcell, 47, has switched her private practice to almost all video appointments, which have been dominated by patients with uncontrollable anxiety during the pandemic. 

They are tearful and shaking, struggling with palpitations and chest pain and feelings of doom,she says. 

Recognizing a need for better public education on the virus, Purcell has been creating and posting videos on her practices Facebook page, where theyve drawn thousands of views.

I am encouraged that people are at least listening,says Purcell, the mother of two, ages 12 and 9. It gives me a sense of doing something rather than feeling helpless.

Amy Comander, a breast oncologist, has also had to step up in the wake of all of this. Although she typically treats patients with breast cancer, her internal medicine training was put into action last month when a floor at Mass General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston was converted for patients with COVID-19. (Doctors in all areas of medicine are being called upon to help care for patients with COVID).

I witnessed the amazing courage and strength of the nurses and my physician colleagues as we took on the challenge of learning how to provide the best care for these patients,she says, adding that she wore an old pair of running shoes as her designated COVID-19 hospital shoes.

Dr. Comander showing off her Boston Marathon finisher medal.

Running as a Release During the Pandemic 

While the COVID-19 crisis has upended regular running for many doctors, emergency room physician, Dr. Sandy Simons says it has reconnected her to the sport she loves. 

After feeling burnt out from running last year, the 18-time marathoner switched to gym training. But with gyms shut down as states implement social distancing policies, she returned to the roads, where she’s been slowly building her mileage—and making sure to keep a safe distance from others. 

“COVID getting me back out there running is a silver lining to this awful state of affairs,” says Simons, the mother of three teenage boys.

In addition to her exhausting 12-hour shifts, Simons, 45, has become a vocal advocate for medical workers at the frontlines, detailing her fears as a doctor in a recent column for Politico. 

“I’m angry that we don’t have enough [personal protective equipment] and that many of us are being gagged when we try to speak out,” she tells Women’s Running in an email.

Purcell is running solo more these days and like many runners, misses the group experience. 

“I feel so blessed that I watched the Olympic Marathon Trials and celebrated our friendship. So much has changed since then,” recalls Purcell, an ultramarathoner and trail runner who also volunteers as a race pacer in local distance events.

When the COVID-19 crisis struck her area last month, Comander was gearing up for what would have been her seventh consecutive Boston Marathon, which she uses to raise money for breast cancer survivor programs.

“I am very disappointed that the Boston Marathon was postponed, but of course fighting our current pandemic is the most important endurance race we all face right now,” says Comander, 45, the mother of two, ages 10 and 13.

To deal with the stress and uncertainty each day brings, the ten-time marathoner considers her daily three to four-mile runs essential for her mind and body. 

“I have cut back on my longer runs, but I look forward to resuming marathon training in June,” she says, adding that she plans to run the Boston Marathon on its new date in September.

Ana Lisa Ramirez-Chapman, director of obstetric anesthesia at the University of Texas Health Science Center, is not only working in an area that makes her incredibly prone to infection, but also finds herself managing a “beautiful mess” at home with her two children and her parents that also live with her. 

In recent months, Ramirez-Chapman, a college sprinter turned three-time marathoner, was training to compete in the 200 and 400 meters and a sprint relay at the U.S. Outdoor Masters Track and Field Championships in July. 

Although that plan has been wiped out, Ramirez-Chapman still carves out time to run when she can. And with kids’ activities canceled, she has a new running buddy: Her 11-year-old son who sometimes tags along. 

Mama Doc, Dr. Emily Stoneman running the Seattle Marathon

With her incredibly demanding schedule and the London marathon postponed to the fall, Stoneman — a six-time marathoner — sometimes squeezes in short runs to relieve stress, but “I’m definitely running less because work, family, and sleep — when I can get it — are the major priorities right now.”

For now, she, and all these other mama docs are focused on running a different kind of endurance event.

“In many ways, this situation is like a marathon I have been training for my entire life,” Stoneman says. “I feel very privileged that I get to show up and do this job every day.”