They Played Sports at the Highest Level. Now Their Job Is to Save Lives.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist Hayley Wickenheiser of Canada was around 10 years old when she first had the idea of being both a professional hockey player and a doctor. Wickenheiser, now 41, grew up in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, a town of fewer than 2,000 people and less than two square miles in size. A young girl in the area had been severely injured after getting hit by a grocery delivery van.

“I remember going to the hospital with all the kids in the neighborhood and just being really inspired and intrigued by the doctors and nurses that were taking care of her,” Wickenheiser said in a telephone interview.

“That’s how it all started. At that age, I had two goals: to play for the Edmonton Oilers and to go to Harvard Medical School.”

After retiring in 2017 as Team Canada’s career scoring leader, Wickenheiser enrolled in medical school at the University of Calgary, then took on the role as an assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2018. She was in the midst of her clinical rotation in emergency rooms around Toronto two weeks ago, when medical students and trainees were pulled from their assignments as the number of coronavirus cases in the country reached a critical point.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there have been more than 1.3 million coronavirus cases and 81,106 virus-related deaths recorded worldwide. More than 30 percent of those diagnosed cases are in the United States. Canada is home to more than 17,000 cases, or just over 1 percent.


Medical students aren’t allowed to directly treat patients who have contracted Covid-19, so Wickenheiser has been gathering personal protective equipment, or P.P.E., for front line workers and helping with contact tracing of diagnosed patients to track the spread of the virus.

“I remember when the first Covid patient came through the emergency room doors in the hospital I was at, one of the doctors I was with did not physically want to go into the room,” she said. “They didn’t feel protected or that they had enough P.P.E. and they didn’t really know what they were dealing with.”

One morning in early March, after a particularly unsettling shift, Wickenheiser, a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Commission, was stunned to read that the I.O.C. still was planning for the Summer Olympics to continue as scheduled in Tokyo starting in July.

“I kept on seeing this blatant, ‘We are going ahead no matter what,’ kind of attitude and I just thought, ‘How can you be speaking?’” she said. “It was making me crazy. Every day I was losing sleep listening to this dialogue.”

Wickenheiser voiced her concerns to Canadian and international Olympic leaders before publishing a statement to her social media accounts on March 17 imploring the I.O.C. to make a decision about postponing or canceling the Games.

“I think the I.O.C. insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” she wrote. “We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone in the next three months.”

Five days later, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it would not send the country’s athletes to Tokyo in 2020 and called on the I.O.C. to postpone the games, a decision the I.O.C. made with the Japanese government on March 24.

Wickenheiser has since been in contact with the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada to help promote social distancing advisories to the public and has contributed to his #plankthecurve social media campaign.

She isn’t the only elite athlete now on the front lines in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

Duvernay-Tardif, who got his medical degree from McGill University in Montreal, hopes to specialize in emergency medicine but isn’t currently part of a medical residency program and cannot assist doctors and other medical staff in treating patients. After he returned from his post-Super Bowl sailing vacation, he reached out to Quebec government officials asking how he could help. Like Wickenheiser, Duvernay-Tardif has been using his social media platforms to communicate vetted health care guidance to his followers, totaling nearly 200,000 between Instagram and Twitter.

“So far I’ve done a bunch of interviews and gone live on different platforms, reinforcing how important it is to do social distancing, basic hygiene like hand-washing, and how we’re going to manage this thing,” Duvernay-Tardif said in a telephone interview.

Myron Rolle was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2010 and spent three seasons playing professional football before retiring to pursue a career in medicine. Rolle, a Rhodes Scholar, is currently a neurosurgery resident at the Harvard Medical School and at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he treats patients with various ailments, including ones that show signs of the Covid-19. Massachusetts has the United States’ fourth highest rate of infection per capita, with 15,202 reported cases.

“I think the biggest surprise for me is how infectious it is,” he said. “People had mentioned that it’s similar to the flu or common cold, but this virus goes from person to person without discrimination.”

Regardless of their specialties, all three athletes drew parallels between competing in professional sports and working in the health care field. They said skills like time management, managing intense pressure and perseverance were easily transferable between vocations.

“Football’s taught me discipline, focus, hard work, dedication, teamwork, preparation, and overcoming adversity,” Rolle said.

Wickenheiser has related her medical colleagues’ traits to her athletic peers as a way of supporting their efforts during the current crisis.

“I was talking to a friend who has been an emergency physician for 20 years and she was describing how she had to shut down communications with friends because she was getting text messages from people saying how they were so sorry for her and grieving that she had to do her job and she didn’t feel that way at all,” Wickenheiser said.

“I said, ‘This is your med Olympics. This is like the Olympics for you. Yes, you’re at risk, but you’re also really damn good at your job and smart, and you’re going to do everything you can to protect yourself and your staff.”

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