How 2 nurses lean on their Olympic training to cope with stress in Toronto hospitals

There is tingling nerves, butterflies in the stomach, some apprehension and a rush of adrenaline.

Former Olympic swimmers Michelle Toro and Heather MacLean often experience the same range of emotions working as nurses at Toronto hospitals as they did stepping onto the starting block before a race.

Toro, a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at The Hospital for Sick Children, and MacLean, who works at Mount Sinai Hospital where she assists in high-risk deliveries and fetal procedures, credit their training as elite athletes and their time on Canada’s national swim team for helping to prepare them for their medical careers.

“In a code situation, where a lot is happening at once, you need to think quickly,” said Toro, a member of the 4×100-metre freestyle relay team that earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I find when I am in situations like that, I do feel like I can kind of slow it down in my head. Just use the techniques that I used as an athlete [to] narrow my focus and think more sharply and just do what needs to be done in that moment.”

MacLean, part of the 4×100 freestyle relay team that finished 11th at the 2012 London Games, compares the stress of an Olympic year to the apprehension many healthcare workers are experiencing while facing COVID-19.

“Right now, going into the hospital, the feelings that I have are quite similar to that of the Olympic year, not being able to sleep because of anxiety and not knowing what the future holds,” she said. “Just prepping for the Olympics and now, just prepping for COVID-19, you can say there’s similar feeling of fear and anxiety. Except the [stress of the] Olympics ended in six months.”

Threat of coronavirus

Each day, healthcare workers deal with the threat of the coronavirus.

“You walk into a hospital and you feel a layer of fear,” said MacLean. “It’s almost like a fog. People are scared, practitioners are scared, patients are scared.”

Wearing protective gear for long stretches presents its own challenges for MacLean. (Submitted by Heather MacLean)

The hospitals where the two work have taken precautions against the virus. Patients are restricted to visits by one family member. Nurses wear gowns, masks and goggles.

“The big change is wearing a mask for 12 hours, which comes with its own unique challenges,” said Toro. “It does kind of hurt your ears after 12 hours.”

MacLean said the protective gear makes it difficult to form a personal bond with patients.

“In a normal time, it’s a scary time for them,” she said. “One way we can do our job, you build trust with them pretty quickly and get to know them. It’s hard to do that when you’re going into the room fully masked and gowned. You kind of look like an alien.

“I may be smiling under my mask, but they can’t see that.”

During her four years on the national team, Toro swam mostly in sprint races. The slightest mistake could cost fractions of a second and become the difference between being out front or caught in someone’s wake.

“The tiniest details were the most important,” said Toro, who retired in 2018.

“In this world of neonatal intensive care, it’s all about the tiny details. When babies get sick, they present with very subtle changes. It’s the really subtle things that you’re looking for. I kind of parallel that attention to detail [to what] I used to practise as an athlete.”

The team atmosphere of a hospital is similar to what MacLean experienced as a swimmer.

“As much as swimming was an individual sport, you’re also working with your coach, your teammates, the nutritionists and sports psychologists,” she said.

“It’s kind of the same thing here. We have doctors, the respiratory therapists, the anesthesiologists, the baby doctors, the other nurses. It’s kind of a similar aspect in we all have our different jobs but we’re all working towards the same common thing.”

Along with an Olympic medal, Toro far left, won gold in the women’s 4×50 freestyle with Sandrine Mainville, Taylor Ruck, and Penny Oleksiak at the 2016 world short-course championships in Windsor, Ont. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Special significance

Nursing at SickKids has special significance for Toro. She was born in Pretoria, South Africa, with a cleft lip and palate. After moving to Toronto when she was six, Toro underwent several surgeries at SickKids, the last occurring when she was 19.

“I’ve had a really strong gratitude for SickKids, for what they’ve done for me,” she said.

MacLean, who spent parts of four years on the national team before retiring in 2014, always wanted to work in obstetrics.

“I’ve always been fascinated with birth,” she said. “I think it’s the coolest thing. I’ve seen who knows how many births and each one is special and each one is different.”

Toro remembers competing against MacLean growing up.

“She was always kind of an idol to me, a role model but also a huge rival,” she said.

The hospitals the women work at are connected by a tunnel. Sometimes the babies MacLean helps deliver are transferred to the ward where Toro looks after them.

“I feel like there is a bit of a bond between us because of the way our lives ended up and our how our journeys ran kind of parallel,” said Toro.

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