Rowing crew alumni saving lives during COVID-19 pandemic
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Saving lives as rowing crew alumni

A well-known acronym for TEAM is Together Everyone Achieves More, and that is certainly something Dr. Cassandra Duncan-Azadi, a pediatric anesthesiologist at the University of Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, draws upon each day.

Duncan-Azadi (BS ’06) is one of more than 40 former University of Tulsa rowing student-athletes who have entered the medical profession since Head Coach Kevin Harris’ arrival on campus in 2002, that’s nearly 25% of all rowing graduates. She, like other TU rowing alumnae, relates a lot of her present-day work back to her college years.

The health care profession has been thrown into the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the professionalism, teamwork and dedication among these women has only gotten stronger.

How rowing translates to anesthesiology

Duncan-Azadi, a former Putnam City (Oklahoma) North high school swimmer, joined the TU rowing team after a conversation with then-assistant coach Rosemary Tran.

“I chose TU because it was a perfect distance from home, and I loved TU when I toured it. I loved the individual attention and the small class sizes and the fact that all the professors knew your name. Early morning practices is what I remember the most about rowing, but it created such a camaraderie – a family away from home,” she said.

Now, Duncan-Azadi equates her work in the operating room to a Varsity 8+ competition.

“It is kind of like watching a rowing team in an Eight. When they are doing it well, it looks effortless from a distance, but when you are in the boat, it is a lot harder. Anesthesiology is a lot like that. There is a lot that goes into it, and it is gratifying to me when I’ve done it well and it looks so easy and so smooth. Rowing in particular teaches you how to work on a team, and I work on a team every day. Everyone is integral,” she explained.

Duncan-Azadi’s mother and grandmother, both nurses, influenced her decision to study biochemistry at TU and become a doctor. She settled on children’s anesthesiology during her residency at the UAB Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama.

Cassandra Duncan-Azadi

“As an anesthesiologist, you take care of children in some of the worst circumstances and at their most vulnerable moments. They don’t know me until the pre-op area, but I do my best to make them comfortable and assure them that I’m going to care for them like I would my own child,” she said.

Smart decisions as an athlete and a nurse

Madeline Oleksiak (BSN ’19) jumped right into a full-time nursing position shortly after graduation. She serves as a licensed nurse at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital.

She agrees with Duncan-Azadi’s assessment of the importance of teamwork but also emphasized how time as a student-athlete helped prepare her for whatever may be thrown her way. “Being an athlete has given me the ability to look at a situation and take some of the emotion out of it and do what needs to be done,” Oleksiak said.

“In racing, you’re at the starting line, you are nervous, you have a lot of emotions and then you realize you have to row the race. It’s similar in nursing. You just have to do the things you need to do, think clearly and make the right decisions to help the patient.”

Before coming to Tulsa, Oleksiak was a lightweight rower at Holy Spirit High School in Brigantine, New Jersey, just an hour from her current home in Philadelphia.

Madeline Oleksiak

“In dealing with the challenges that have been presented by the virus, I can draw on my experiences as a Division I athlete and a nursing student,” she said. “Everyone has had to step up and be flexible and willing to work in different areas as needed. There is no such thing as coronavirus nurses, so you have to find nurses in different subsets that are willing to come forward and treat this patient population. I have been one of the nurses treating the patients suffering from COVID. It is a learning curve for everyone in the health system.”

Seamless teamwork in rowing and health care

Coming off a double-shift of two 12-hour workloads, Lisa (Simes) Land echoed a similar perspective on teamwork.

Land (BSN ’08) was a flight medicine nurse for three years before now settling in as a pulmonary nurse practitioner at the Kingman (Arizona) Regional Health Center.

Lisa Land

“What rowing did for me was to help me understand the true value of teamwork. You have to be in sync, communicate and work together in a boat,” she stated. “As a nurse, learning from each other and working together is something you have to do. You have your patients, but you can’t narrow your focus and forget about the rest of the patients on the floor. You have to always be helping your colleagues. Whether it is rowing or nursing, it truly takes seamless teamwork in order to be efficient.”

Land, like Duncan-Azadi, did not row until reaching college. She, too, thanks Tran for getting her involved in the sport.

“I was going to the athletic building to talk about joining the softball team since I was an all-state catcher for three years in the little town of Tom Bean, Texas. But, I met Rosemary and she asked if I would be interested in rowing. I was from football country. I had no idea what crew was, but as an ambitious freshman, I researched it and decided to give it a try,” Land said.

Connecting with patients

Lauren Vander Hoeven was a high school rower at Holy Cross High School in St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, but she did not want to row in college until convinced otherwise by Harris.

Vander Hoeven (BSN ’18) is now a registered nurse at Tulsa’s Saint Francis Hospital. She is currently a part of the float pool, where she is sent to different floors to gain diverse experience in her young career.

“When Kevin came up to the Niagara region on a recruiting trip and tossed out the idea that I could participate in collegiate athletics, it became something I wanted to do. I chose TU because Kevin was an enthusiastic and supportive coach and I had the feeling that I would be well supported while I was in Tulsa,” Vander Hoeven said.

She also credits her time as a student-athlete in helping her adjust to life as a medical professional. “Being a student-athlete makes you be a team player, a more flexible person and it helps show you how to communicate with people, which has positively affected my ability to care for my patients,” she added.

Now with the COVID-19 rules of no visitors allowed in the hospital, Vander Hoeven has put those skills to use more than ever before.

“People miss their families. I’ve been on the phone with family members a lot more as they call to check on their loved ones. Patients want to talk more because they are lonely, and even though it’s busy, I try to spend an extra few minutes to give them the social connection they need,” she said.

Relying on their education and experience as TU student-athletes, these women can handle whatever situation presents itself and that is no more evident than during the coronavirus crisis.