Perhaps that’s why after winning four Olympic gold medals and seven IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medals, Wickenheiser set her sights on becoming an emergency department physician.
“I’ve always liked challenges and I like being a rookie again,” said Wickenheiser, who is now in her third and final year of medical school at the University of Calgary, while also juggling her duties as assistant director of player development for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs.
Over the past couple of months, Wickenheiser was supposed to be working “in the hospitals as a clinical clerk, where I would be seeing patients, treating patients, reviewing cases with my attending doctors and getting ready to go into my residency.”
“I’m ready to go. I’m chomping at the bit,” Wickenheiser said of wanting to be on the front lines during the peak of COVID-19 to help people in hospital heal. “It would be an honour to be out there and be able to treat patients.”
She and her fellow med students were forced off the front lines for their own health and safety, and with the hockey world on hold for the same reason, it would be only a matter of time before Wickenheiser found a meaningful calling that would keep the Team Canada alumna and Order of Canada member busy – working with Conquer COVID-19 to get personal protective equipment (PPE) to health care workers on the front lines quickly and safely.
“I was getting text messages from my friends for weeks saying, ‘we’re worried we’re going to run out; people are hoarding, people are stealing from the hospital,’ ” Wickenheiser told IIHF.com of the panic many health care workers experienced when the seriousness of this novel coronavirus finally shocked those outside of the medical community, from citizens to politicians, into action.
“One of my friends, an ICU intensivist who managed the SARS outbreak in Toronto said this is a crisis like no other,” she recalled. “And then I saw a young, 40-something-year-old pilot being intubated with COVID.”
Both experiences left an undeniable impression on Wickenheiser regarding just how fast COVID-19 can spread and how literally life-saving proper PPE was going to be for her colleagues in the medical field.
So Wickenheiser used her status as an internationally-renowned athlete to make a passionate social media plea for PPE, which was quickly re-Tweeted by Canadian-born Hollywood celebrity Ryan Reynolds, who she had befriended in 2014, when they were both inducted onto Canada’s Walk Of Fame.
“He’s a great Canadian boy, so yeah, his tweet amplified it,” Wickenheiser said of what was initially a short and sweet social media ask for specific numbers and types of masks, gloves and gowns.
Wickenheiser’s PPE plea also connected her and Reynolds to Conquer COVID-19, a grassroots group that describes itself as “comprised of physicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, and other volunteers who are working together to ensure frontline workers responsible for the health and wellbeing of Canadians have access to masks, gloves, and other supplies that are essential in treating patients and minimizing the spread of the virus.”
The group reached out to the duo over social media and ensured them they had already made arrangements to ensure donated supplies would be properly and carefully delivered to health care facilities across the country.
With the help of Conquer COVID-19, Wickenheiser and Reynolds worked together to lead a massive fundraising machine, resulting in more than $2-million raised and about 2 million items distributed to over 350 locations across the country. Those range from masks, shields, gloves, gowns and other PPE for health care workers, to sanitizing gels and wipes for police officers, paramedics and other front liner workers, to baby monitors, baby wipes and other vital supplies for women’s shelters – with an anticipated spike in domestic violence during the pandemic.
The Conquer COVID-19 team also held collection drives across Canada, bringing hundreds of volunteers together in Burlington, Calgary, London, Ottawa, Toronto, Surrey, Vancouver, Victoria. They wore masks and gloves, practised physical distancing and filled trucks with PPE for delivery to health care facilities. Some companies donated supplies to keep volunteers watered, fed and safe themselves, while others bought Conquer COVID-19 T-shirts, dubbed by Reynolds “the most boring T-shirt in the world,” to help support the cause, with Canadian fans and celebrities alike posing and posting on social media.
Particularly emotional for Wickenheiser was watching a plane full of PPE pull off the runway and fly toward Nova Scotia, a donation made in memory of Victoria Order of Nurses members Kristen Beaton and Heather O’Brien, two of the 22 victims of a horrific mass murder that shocked the Maritime province in late April. Wickenheiser had seen Beaton’s widowed husband speak to the media publicly about how passionate his wife had been about the need for proper PPE in Nova Scotia.
“Hi Nick,” Wickenheiser tweeted. “I want you to know our @conquercovid19 team heard you a few days ago, as well as just now on @CBCTheNational. We are sending PPE to NS in honour of your wife Kristen and all front line workers.”
Over the past few months, Wickenheiser has answered countless media requests to help promote the PPE cause and supported fundraisers whenever asked, from participating in the nationally televised Stronger Together broadcast to benefit Food Banks Canada, to appearing on the virtual vigil Nova Scotia Remembers.
To Dr. Wanda Millard, who has worked as a Hockey Canada physician since 2007 and has mentored Wickenheiser on her path to becoming a doctor, that commitment and compassion is par for the course – or stick on the ice.
“I’ve never met anybody like her,” said Dr. Millard, who was joined at her home base, London Health Sciences Centre, by Wickenheiser for one of her protege’s emergency department clerkships pre-pandemic.
“It’s her capacity to work, whether that’s training when she was playing hockey, or doing two full-time jobs at the same time – medical school and working with the Maple Leafs. It’s her capacity to get things done, and also her capacity to care.”
But Wickenheiser points to Dr. Millard as the true hero. “She told me... she was intubating a COVID-19 patient so she is extremely at risk. She is wearing a respirator 10 hours a day with a mask, with gloves, double-gloved, going in a foot away from someone’s head and putting in a breathing tube in so they can survive.”
Wickenheiser wants to be on the front lines with her, and now, like many workers around the world, is taking every precaution necessary to return to her daily duties safely.
Just this past week, Wickenheiser was back in hospital, working alongside her other physician mentors in the infectious disease clinic. She also announced this week a project called Pandemic Solutions, which has brought physicians, business leaders and community leaders together to ensure safe return-to-work solutions.
“From now on, returning to work requires more than just fully-stocked PPE,” Wickenheiser said in a news release. “It requires a thoughtful, science-based system that protects the products and the people.”
“We need to get a business solution, which I’m actually working on,” Wickenheiser explained to IIHF.com of the project. “(As) we do return to work in this country, there is going to be a graduated wave of the work force.
“We’re working on this right now to help Canadians and businesses get back to work.”
“People in medicine would go to the wall for me and I would go to the wall for them, just like any of my teammates that I played with,” Wickenheiser said. “You just spend so much time together; you go through highs and lows; and you see real human emotion and vulnerability.”
Like many of us, hockey will always be her No. 1 passion.
However, “health and human life come before hockey and sport,” Wickenheiser said.
“If we keep that in mind moving forward, we can use hockey as a vehicle to deliver joy and hope and unity, when it’s time to come, and we come back at the right time. It’s going to be an amazing celebration.”