When Alexis Dobbs (CAS) graduated from American University in 2014, she did so as one of the most decorated players in AU women's basketball history. A three-time Patriot League Scholar-Athlete of the Year, four-time All-Patriot League selection, three-time team captain, and winner of both the 2014 American University President's Award and NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship, Dobbs went on to pursue a career in service as a physician's assistant (PA) at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic.
That journey, and those of the thousands of healthcare workers across the world, took a jarring turn over the last several months with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. AUEagles.com sat down with Alexis to get a look into this new reality from the perspective of one fighting on the front lines for the health and safety of her community.
Q: These last few months have been quite the rollercoaster for you - how are you doing?
A: I"m doing pretty well. You know, staying positive and just continuing to go to work as normal and do the best that we can.
Q: Before we get into these last few months, I want to rewind a little bit and talk about your journey. You graduated from American in 2014, but your history with the Cleveland Clinic actually predates that, so can you just talk about how you landed there and what inspired you to pursue a career as a PA?
A: Sure. So I'm from a suburb outside of Cleveland, and what really introduced me to the PA profession was actually a woman who I call my mentor now. It all started when I was in high school - I went to Hathaway Brown School - and I injured my knee my senior year. So I went to the Cleveland Clinic to get it looked at and diagnosed, and the woman who took care of my was a physician assistant named Pam Koeth. And she actually works with the Clinic still over at Hillcrest Hospital. But she took great care of me, introduced me to the profession, and I remember leaving the office thinking I want to be a PA when I grow up. And she got me back to playing later on that season and we even won a state championship. So that's what kind of introduced me to the profession.
From there, I went to AU to play basketball and I was also in the College of Arts and Sciences. I majored in biology, but I also wanted to do kind of a pre-PA track because I knew I wanted to go to PA school. At the time, AU didn't really have a pre-PA track, it was kind of new, so I kind of took it upon myself to make sure I had the classes that I needed to go to PA school once I graduated, and I was fortunate enough to get into Tri-C and Cleveland State University PA program right out of AU. I had a lot of rotations at the Cleveland Clinic while I was in physician assistant school, so that's how I got my foot in the door to the Clinic and I never left.
Q: You mentioned Pam Koeth, your mentor, still works at Cleveland Clinic - have you been able to work alongside her at all?
A: I haven't worked directly with her, no. She works over at Hillcrest Hospital and I'm at Avon Hospital. But we still have kind of a close friendship to this day. I look at her as my big sister and my mentor. I talk to her once a week, or maybe once ever two weeks or so. She still helps me out and kind of guides me, and I'm thankful that I met her to introduce me to this profession.
Q: So now fast forwarding a bit. We had been hearing about COVID-19 for a while before it really started hitting in the States. Do you remember when you started seeing your first cases and what those early days were like?
A: You know, it was kind of a gradual progression. I work in hospital medicine in the inpatient side, so we see a lot of types of diseases and different patients that come in - a lot of pneumonia and heart failure. So it was kind of a fine line between when we started seeing patients possibly with the virus and also patients that, you know, would be coming in for pneumonia. So in the beginning, it was kind of a gradual progression where the Cleveland Clinic was able to adapt the tests from the CDC that came out, and we were able to run that test at our main campus downtown. That's when we kind of started being able to test more patients in northeast Ohio.
So at that point, when we started to test more patients, we started to see more because we were able to diagnose them. But in the interim, we were getting prepared for this and taking the recommendations from the CDC. So we were able to make sure we were able to properly put on our PPE and protect ourselves as caregivers, and also our patients.
Q: Do you remember one point in particular for you where it kind of dawned on you that this was going to be, not only serious, but long lasting?
A: Definitely. There was a point, and my colleagues and I talk about this quite often, where we were getting meetings once, maybe two times a day, to prepare and ramp up our expertise on managing these types of patients. And a lot of my colleagues here have children, and husbands or wives and so forth, so just the reality of trying to protect yourself, but also being cognizant of your family, and there's a little bit of fear that goes into it, which is normal. But a lot of us were mostly excited to be helping with this pandemic that none of us could have ever predicted or envisioned we'd be involved in.
Q: Yeah and pursuing a career in the healthcare industry, obviously you're going into it knowing that you want to help people. But this is a whole new area, so how has that been for you to take on this challenge that not many people have ever had to face?
A: It's been different. It's been an adjustment, but mostly it's been positive. Our hospital and the Cleveland Clinic itself has done a great job preparing us to the point where we feel comfortable and prepared as much as we can. The morale at the hospital has been pretty great. We feel even more like a family than ever before. I work at Avon Hospital, which is a small community hospital with about 126 beds. So all of us caregivers, nurses, physical therapists, doctors, nurse practitioners, and PA's all work together closely and know each other more so than maybe in a bigger hospital. So we've been sticking together and doing things to keep morale high.
Q: Can you just take us through a day for you? Obviously a lot has changed...
A: I would say that it starts off kind of with reality. We get temperature checks when we walk through the door before we enter the hospital. Every caregiver will get their temperature checked to make sure they don't have a fever, just adding another level of safety. And then we go in and go about our normal day seeing patients and everything like that. I think the biggest difference is that our hospital, and many other hospitals, have focused on cohorting these COVID patients. So sometimes I will be working in the COVID unit where we are dealing with possible COVID patients, or those diagnosed, and it's just more focused.
Q: And you mentioned the family aspect of your hospital, but can you expand on the atmosphere when you're working in the COVID unit?
A: Yeah. You know, in times like this, I think it's important that we all stick together and keep things positive. So even little things like signs - when we go into the employee entrance, there's a walkway and there are signs lining the sidewalk supporting caregivers and saying things like "You're our hero". Things like that, little things that kind of help you when you walk in the door to know that you're not alone in this and that we're all together. There are also caregiver stations where we might get water or a snack throughout the day, just little things to keep us together.
Q: And you see online a lot, especially on social media, these little moments that are bringing a little light into everything. Have you had any of those inspirational moments, or are there things you guys do with the patients or each other to bring some positives into your day?
A: Yeah there have been instances where I have been able to be a part of maybe a video conference with a patient and their family members. You know, given the circumstances, visitation policies have been cut back to maybe another family member coming in if it's a child, or for a labor and delivery. But at our hospital, it's mostly people who are in threatening life or death situations, so most of these patients, unfortunately, don't hve have their family members or friends there in the room with them which is very hard. So we try our best to make sure that the patients feel comfortable, and sometimes even helping them set up FaceTime so that they can chat and see their family members.
I was fortunate to actually be a part of one of those with a patient that I had, and it was a patient that didn't have a smartphone, so she was unfamiliar with FaceTime and all that. So it was pretty cool to see her see her family members on the other side, and we actually surprised her. She was very happy.
Q: I'm sure some of those get pretty emotional when they get to see their family.
A: Definitely. It was very touching. She was almost brought to tears because we surprised her - she had no clue that she'd be able to see them, and it had been a couple of days. It's hard to be in there by yourself, so we try to do little things like that.
Q: There is obviously an emotional, mental, and physical toll on the patients, but also for you guys with the long hours and everything you have to go through. How has all that impacted you, and what have you done to manage everything?
A: I have a great support system, not only at Avon Hospital, but also my close friends and family. My fiancee has taken the brunt of supporting me. I think the hardest part for everyone is the social distancing and staying at home with the stay at home order that's in Ohio and other states. So I think now going to work actually, and it sounds a little bit odd, but it's actually where I socialize the most. And I get to see my colleagues and friends, and we get to do something kind of great for the Cleveland Clinic and everyone in fighting COVID-19.
Q: And taking things back to AU and your experience here. Do you think your time as a student-athlete has helped you in dealing with everything?
A: I think being a student-athlete definitely helped me with my career in general, but especially now during more difficult times. The mental part of it I think more than anything prepares you to stick to your guidelines and everything that you know is within your control. Just doing your best and working your hardest when you're needed the most. I think being a student-athlete for those four years prepares you for that, prepares you for life after college.
Q: And you mentioned your community earlier - have you heard a lot from your old teammates and the coaching staff?
A: Yeah, I was able to talk to Nikki [Flores], who is on the women's basketball staff, which was very nice hearing from her and teammates just asking how I was doing and everything. Just a quick check in and a "thank you" or "thinking about you" has been great, just to know that people out there do recognize what's going on and who's involved.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
A: I think just the main thing is I'd like to reiterate everything. I think we're doing a good job overall staying at home and social distancing, and it's mainly to just keep that up and do what you can to control what you can. Which is just doing those things that the CDC recommends.
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