Riding the Pine
Not familiar with the phrase? It is an expression in sports that refers to being on the bench…being on the sidelines and not having the chance to get in the game and contribute to the team’s effort.
I have found myself thinking a lot lately about my days playing basketball in high school. Those who know me may be shocked to know that yes, indeed, I played varsity basketball in high school. At 5’8 ¾” first thing in the morning when my intervertebral discs have been hydrating all night, “basketball player” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me. And by “play basketball”, I really mean lots of playing in practice. And even when I got to play during the last few minutes of those games when we were crushing the opposing team, I missed a lot of shots and had several turnovers. There was a reason I was a pine rider.
So I got good at helping my teammates in practice to prepare for games and cheered them on, especially when the game was close or when we were losing. “Let’s go Blue!” But I spent a lot of time riding the pine and enduring the frustration and disappointment that goes with it. I thought those days were long behind me.
Then came COVID-19.
My full-time employment is as an Associate Professor in a DPT program, and I try to squeeze in as many clinical hours as I can in my favorite practice setting: cardiothoracic critical care. I am blessed to have my academic office across the street from a large academic quaternary care cardiovascular hospital that offers the full complement of heart/lung transplant, mechanical circulatory support, and other services.
For those who know how little cardiopulmonary content I got in PT school and the dumb cardiopulmonary mistakes I made early in my practice, you would be surprised to learn that I now consider myself a “critical care PT”. And now, just as in high school, during the big COVID-19 “game”, I am riding the pine.
But here is where the COVID-19 pandemic and high school basketball are different. COVID-19 is not a game. It is life and death, and is leaving a wake of destruction in patients’ lives and the lives of health professionals. I am not in the game not because of lack of skill (or height), but because the pandemic has decimated employment opportunities for health care providers. Redeployment of full-time clinical staff means the part-timers like me aren’t (yet) needed.
So I sit on the sidelines and ride the pine. I am cheering for my friends and colleagues on the front lines, and am supporting them where I can. But I feel left behind. Powerless to make an impact on my community and help patients in need. Worried about the health and safety of my comrades in the game. But this is not a game- it is war.
I signed up on the State of Michigan volunteer provider portal. I signed up as a respiratory therapist as PTs weren’t yet listed. I volunteered to take advantage of Executive Order 30 allowing PTs to serve as respiratory therapist extenders. Over three weeks later I finally got the call to go to the East side of the state to help. I started the on-boarding process. I jumped off the bench, tore off my warm-ups, and ran to the timer’s table and took a knee waiting for the next stop in play. Excited, nervous, but ready.
Then I got called off. Their needs changed. Back to the bench. Disappointed. Frustrated.
But here’s the thing that makes it all OK: My impact was made years ago. So many of my former students and who are now my dearest colleagues have stepped up and are leading. They are warriors. They are fighting. They are making the difference. “Let’s go PT!”
The next group of first year DPT students are taking my cardiopulmonary course this summer. It is another opportunity to further develop our profession’s capacity to manage patients with complex cardiovascular and pulmonary conditions across the continuum of care. I hope they realize just how seriously they must take this course. It is life and death. These are skills they need. That our country needs. COVID-19 may be over by the time they are licensed, but they need to be ready for the next pandemic.
I have concluded that I am not riding the bench at all. No, I am fighting the good fight and am a critical part of the war effort. It is Rosy the Riveter kind of stuff, doing my part on the Homefront during a world war to prepare those on the front lines.
My clinical time will come. OUR time will come. For all of us not working clinically right now, health care WILL rebound. Our country’s health care needs have not gone away. They have gotten worse. We will ALL be needed. Riding the pine sucks. But this game won’t be won until we are all off the bench and playing. This is a game we can’t lose, won’t lose, and we will all play our part. Get ready to tear off those warm-ups…