Nursing alumni, student athletes, on COVID-19 frontline

(Reposted from NIUhuskies.com)

The fields of play are temporarily silent, but several NIU Huskies continue to compete, albeit against a very different opponent. Many NIU student-athletes, both past and present, are among the heroes working in the fight against COVID-19.

Their experiences wearing the Huskie uniform have helped prepare them for the work they do now, whether it be in the ER, the delivery room, hospital administration or any other facet of the healthcare industry.

One of those Huskies working on the frontlines against COVID-19 is Allie Fullriede, a rising senior on the NIU women’s soccer team. A nursing major, Fullriede was doing her clinicals at Edward Hospital in Naperville at the beginning of the spring semester and was looking to return to Edward in the summer, once the school year had concluded.

“On spring break, I got a phone call and they were offering me the job, but once I got back from spring break they asked about my situation with school and soccer, and if I thought I could orientate right away,” Fullriede explained. “So, once I got back from spring break, I have been working full-time now, I work three days a week.”

Working nights as a patient care technician on an oncology floor, Fullriede has gained valuable experience and credits the nurses she works with for helping her along the way.

“With clinical we would only go (to the hospital) once a week, so I’m already starting to feel more comfortable with patient care than I would have with my eight weeks of clinical,” she said. “It has been really cool, the nurses take initiative, because I work nights so there’s not as much going on, they will pull me aside and show me what they are doing or run me through stuff. So, it’s definitely been a really good learning experience.”

Like all students, Fullriede finished the semester remotely, not only with classes but also with soccer, where team meetings and activity has continued through Zoom. And although it hasn’t been the same, she has appreciation for the efforts of the faculty, staff and coaches to make the rest of the semester as normal as possible.

“I miss interacting with my teachers, my peers and my best friends in nursing school,” said Fullriede. “I just miss going to Starbucks or the student center to study, because its different versus being, for example, on FaceTime. But I definitely think that they’re doing a really great job and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on too much, information-wise.

“They are doing the best they can, everything can’t be exactly how it was supposed to, but they are making sure that we all get our credits which is important. I was nervous about that with nursing, but it’s good. It’s better than I thought.”

Fullriede is one of a number of Huskies currently pursuing the demanding major of nursing while dividing time with being a student-athlete, following in the footsteps of many former Huskies who have gone on to careers in the healthcare field, including wrestler Quinton Rosser (2014-18).

A decorated scholastic wrestler who finished fourth in the state of Ohio as a senior at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller High School, Rosser came to NIU with the intention of pursuing a degree in engineering. While at NIU, Rosser changed paths and decided to go into nursing.

“I wanted to be more connected to people and not just be at a desk,” Rosser said of the decision to make the switch.

A two-time Academic All-MAC honoree, who reached the podium at the 2018 MAC Championships, Rosser was described by NIU head coach Ryan Ludwig as “a model student-athlete.” Following graduation, Rosser took a job at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and he has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic firsthand, having recently recovered from the virus before returning to work on May 1.

“The symptoms I experienced were stuffy nose, headache, overall fatigue,” Rosser explained. “I never got any fevers or cough. I never had shortness of breath, but there’s definitely people we see coming to the hospital that have battled cancer and have said, ‘this is the most sick I’ve ever been.'”

When asked if he had an apprehension about returning to work, Rosser responded by saying, “it’s just part of the job,” explaining that it takes away his fear of contracting the virus, having already had it.

It’s a remarkable reminder of the mindset of the special people doing exceptional work in the medical community, doing all they can to care for others while, at the same time, putting themselves at risk. In Rosser’s case, that mindset can be described through his own words about what made him choose nursing.

“I just wanted to be able to help people in their time of need,” he said. “This is definitely a time when people are most in need.”

Even today, not every one of those medical needs directly involves COVID-19. In Des Moines, Iowa, another former Huskie student-athlete, Mikayla Voigt (2015-19), works as a labor and delivery nurse at MercyOne Medical Center.

Highly decorated both on and off the court, Voigt is the sixth all-time leading scorer in NIU women’s basketball history with 1,741 career points. As a senior in 2018-19, she earned second team All-MAC and second team Academic All-America honors. Among the reasons she cited for choosing NIU was the ability to pursue both basketball and nursing.

“It was definitely one of the reasons, and one of the more significant ones,” Voigt recalls. “NIU was the first Division I to offer me the opportunity to play basketball and pursue a nursing career.

“The opportunity to pursue my dream both athletically, to be a Division I basketball player, and to pursue my dream of becoming a nurse was an amazing opportunity. I was definitely very busy. It’s interesting looking back at it now and people ask, ‘how were you able to do that?’ When I think about it, I honestly don’t know.

“It was just about making a decision that that’s what I wanted to do, so that’s what I did. I made a schedule for myself to make sure I got everything done. I’m super thankful that both the nursing school and (NIU women’s basketball head) Coach (Lisa) Carlsen were able to be so willing to make sure that schedule was feasible.”

That type of scheduling and planning was also important for former Huskie cross country/track and field runner Carly Pederson (2013-17), a registered nurse in the emergency room at Rush Copley Medical Center in Aurora.

“I got lucky because I didn’t pick NIU for (nursing), but once I did decide to go the nursing route, they definitely made it possible, because it is not easy balancing the two,” said Pederson. “We had to get very creative between my professors and my coaches, but they were amazing.”

Pederson recalls one professor in particular, Amy Reeb in Pharmacology, as a “catalyst in my success,” going above and beyond, putting in extra hours outside of class to help Pederson make up for time she missed as she traveled to compete on the track.

While Reeb, and many other professors, helped Pederson in the classroom, cross country head coach Adrian Myers would sometimes lead Pederson’s workouts in the dark and provide pep talks that would help the Bloomington, Ill., native qualify for the NCAA Preliminary Round in the steeplechase as a senior. That outlet on the track also proved to be valuable for Pederson’s overall education.

“Sports saved me because I was so stressed with school because I was always studying,” she said. “I was striving for a good GPA and making sure I learned everything so I was ready for the real world, and running was where I truly could let go of those stressors and just run free and focus on something other than school. I loved going to practice and I loved competing, because it meant I wasn’t studying.”

On-field practice and competition has also helped former Huskie offensive lineman Michael Gegner (2010-14) in the professional world. Gegner, who is currently the Program Director, Senior Staff for the West Region Hospitals of Northwestern Medicine, describes the similarities between preseason football camp and his current job like this.

“In camp, it is a mental challenge to be on top of your game every day,” Gegner says. “Although it can be tiresome doing it day after day, you find ways to stay ready to go. At times throughout this, it’s felt like that, where we’re focusing on the same thing and are really laser focused on COVID. We have these planning meetings that happen on a daily basis, so we have to make sure that every day we come in we’re on top of our game.”

At NIU, Gegner earned his degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering, beginning his tenure with Northwestern Medicine in the performance improvement office. Over time, his role shifted toward operations, initially at Kishwaukee Hospital before moving into his current role with the West Region Hospitals, which includes Central DuPage, Delnor and Kishwakee. During the pandemic, Gegner has become part of the Hospital Incident Command Team.

“Our job is to do behind the scenes planning for the COVID response,” Gegner said. “We are making sure we have the right resources in place to safely deliver care, implementing new procedures to keep our staff and patients safe. It’s just kind of an ongoing planning process, and now we’re in sort of an execution mode when dealing with our COVID response.”

As that planning and execution continues to evolve with the coronavirus crisis, Gegner emphasized that Northwestern Medicine is prepared to meet the needs of its patients.

“We are always staying ready for what can come in the future in terms of COVID, but also understanding there are a lot of patients out there that we want to make sure continue to get great care as well,” said Gegner. “We want people to know that hospitals are absolutely safe places to come to right now. Don’t delay care if you need care. We don’t want anybody to feel nervous about coming to the hospital because there are procedures in place to take to make sure everyone stays safe.”

The balance of school and sport can be a delicate one for many student-athletes, but NIU and NIU Athletics take great pride in the extraordinary men and women who have worn the Huskie logo on the field of competition and now work against a different opponent as the world combats COVID-19. As we highlight a few of those Huskies working on the frontlines, we also salute the many others who work in the medical field, the grocery stores and other essential businesses who have continued to work every day through this difficult time.

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