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George Washington sports medicine trio takes on new COVID-19 roles

Athletic trainers, team physician bring college athletics experience to front lines

When the NCAA canceled remaining winter and spring championships, the need for sports medicine professionals continued even though games were no longer being played.

In many cases, that need grew.

Chris Duncan, Kierra Croons and John Tabacco, all part of the George Washington athletics sports medicine staff, are three such examples, among many.

Chris Duncan now operates as a "safety officer" at GW Hospital

All three are still helping student-athletes in need of their medical expertise and skill sets. From working with insurance companies to telehealth calls to creative rehabilitation programming — think stairs, chairs and kitchen products as equipment — they’ve continued to care for student-athletes from a distance.

All three also have used their skill sets outside the sports medicine realm, too. For several weeks, each has assisted with efforts surrounding the COVID-19 public health crisis in the Washington area.

Duncan, for instance, has operated as a “safety officer” at GW Hospital since sports stopped. Essentially, his new role has consisted of making sure clinicians, nurses and anyone else seeing a confirmed COVID-19 patient put on and take off their protective equipment properly.

Often during his shifts back in early April, Duncan recalled sitting and waiting for the next “code blue” — an emergency situation — to sound over the speakers. Usually, it’s been followed by “19.” In those situations, it was confirmation of what Duncan already knew: another COVID-19 patient. When this happens, he said, he rushes to execute his vital role.

“You can tell everybody’s just really cautious, even when they’ve done so many, of going in without their mask or some slight little thing that could get them infected just as easily,” he said. “I’m on edge, too, and I’m trying to be really cautious through it all, but I still have to do my job, too, so I’m always making sure I’m masked up properly, as well.”

Croons, an assistant athletic trainer for George Washington, has worked several different roles at GW Hospital. Most recently, she’s worked as a screener at the GW Hospital lobby and emergency department entrances. She screens every person who enters — patient or hospital employee. She takes each person’s temperature, asks about recent travel and provides direction from there.

Most recently Kierra Croons has helped as a screened at GW Hospital

“I can’t lie and say that it’s not stressful,” Croons said.

It’s especially hard for Croons because her mother is a recent breast cancer survivor and, as a result, has a compromised immune system. Still, Croons said she feels “comfortable” going in every day and potentially exposing herself because of the support she’s felt from the GW Hospital in terms of protective equipment. Her colleagues at George Washington athletics have been there for her, too.

“My co-workers in the athletics (department) are reaching out, making sure I’m OK. That just helps me mentally know that I’m being thought of, I’m being supported, and it motivates me more to continue to make a difference,” Croons said. “I don’t consider myself like a hero. I just consider myself a health care worker stepping up to help the people who are actually face to face, trying to save lives during this pandemic.”

Tabacco, a first-year team physician for George Washington, has volunteered as a backup at numerous hospitals in the Washington metro area. His biggest efforts, however, have been trying to keep people out of hospitals.

To do so, he converted his sports medicine clinic into offering a combination of telehealth and curbside services. Between the two, his practice helped serve as a first line of defense for hospitals during the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases.

“If they feel unwell enough where they want an ER visit or to see a doctor, we try to get them to come to us first so that we keep those beds available in the ER for those who are very ill,” he said. “We’ve been able to really help our hospitals in doing that. I think we’ve had an unbelievable success rate at being able to keep patients out of the emergency room and keep those beds available for those who really need them.”

Using his sports medicine clinic, John Tabacco helps serve as a first line of defense for hospitals

While their roles in the COVID-19 efforts have looked different, Duncan, Croons and Tabacco each said their shared experience in college athletics helped prepare them for their new challenges.

Notably, teamwork, adaptability and rapid responses are a few carry-overs from their college athletics work. Keeping calm, Duncan said, is another. He likened some of the experiences he’s encountered lately around COVID-19 to unexpected injuries on the field. While cases differ in severity, the fear and sense of the unknown are similar in the moment.

“They’re a different type of scared and frustrated at the same time, not being able to play,” he said, “but being able to be responsive for them and help them out as much as possible (is what we do).”

Croons said there are six domains of athletic training — prevention; clinical evaluation and diagnosis; immediate care, treatment, rehabilitation and conditioning; organization and administration; and professional responsibility. All of them, she added, have transferred from the field of play to the COVID-19 frontlines.

“All six of those domains I use when I’m doing work with a patient and in the traditional setting within athletic training,” Croons said, “but I’ve reminded myself to transition them all into what I’m doing now in the hospital because it still applies in this health care realm.”

Tabacco made similar connections. His ties to college athletics, however, go beyond his sports medicine duties at George Washington.

A former lacrosse player at Denison, a Division III school in Ohio, he connected the lessons from being a student-athlete to his recent challenges as a doctor. To illustrate one example, Tabacco compared memories of 10:30 p.m. lacrosse practices, followed by early morning classes, to his recent 12-hour days at the office.

“A lot of my student-athlete experience is just what kind of made me understand that I knew I was capable of tough schedules and tough rigorous requirements,” he said. “This is an example here. We’ve had to change our schedule completely upside down. I’m in the office by 7 (a.m.), and I’m probably home by 7 (p.m.). My wife makes sure I don’t touch any of the kids before I get a chance to get my clothes off and take a shower, which is difficult with three little ones. So  you learn a ton by being a student-athlete. The learning experiences are really endless. It was such a blessing to be able to experience that.”

While this spring has not been a typical experience for anyone in sports medicine, Duncan, Croons and Tabacco approached their situations the same way. They, like a number of their peers across the country, found a way to help.

“It’s moving. It’s definitely moving to see, emotionally,” Tabacco said of sports medicine personnel across the country helping with COVID-19 efforts. “It does reinforce that these bad times bring everybody together without a doubt. It’s unbelievable to see.”