Person of the Week
Tara Anderson: Hurdling Challenges Despite a Pandemic
An avid runner and a physician assistant at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in North Haven, Tara Anderson devised a way to continue running with friends even in the days of COVID-19. She started a touchless 15K relay, a virtual race that doesn’t use batons or hand slaps but goes on relay routes in Madison and requires runners to take an image of their watches to keep time. (Photo courtesy of Tara Anderson )
One might say that Tara Anderson likes to run the extra mile.
A physician assistant (PA) at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in North Haven, Tara regularly runs as a way to stay fit and keep the stress at bay. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, running relays with others became virtually impossible.
Well, “virtual” was probably Tara’s answer so she came up with a plan: Run a touchless relay. It might sound a bit strange, but the arrangement has been gaining steam and it was well worth the effort to make it happen.
She explains that it’s “similar to a regular relay just without a baton. And rather than running on the track, we run around Madison to avoid running next to someone.
“Our touchless relay is set up as a 15K and each person runs a 5K. When we started, we had just one team, so I mapped out a route [and] told the others the route they had. We each kept track of our own time on our watch, took a picture of our watch, and sent the photo to the group to get our final 15K time,” she adds.
The setup allows runners to stay motivated. Her friends thought it was a good idea and not long after the first run on April 11, more people wanted to join.
The group has grown from three friends doing a race to 20 women split up into five teams of four racing against each other via time. All runners have different starting points on the course. The first runner for each relay team starts the first leg of the race at the same time and then runs to the second. Once the first runner reaches the second, that runner starts the second leg. The race continues until the last runner finishes.
There is no baton or hand slaps. Each runner takes a picture of her watch and sends it to the others. The group determines the winner based on the overall time of each team.
Even while maintaining social distancing, runners still manage to root for each other.
“We try to cheer for each other as we are walking or jogging to our start or we will drive by and video someone running and cheer them on,” Tara says.
She explains that the arrangement was born out of necessity. She was running one day when she felt like she needed motivation to push herself and have some sort of human interaction while running. Friends, she adds, felt the same way at a time when all the gyms have been closed.
Tara’s touchless relay is held every other week and has helped friends keep their motivation high despite the COVID-19 outbreak. The next relay takes place on Saturday, June 20.
The touchless relays are open to women runners 18 years and up. Tara also says that signups for the relays are on a first-come, first-served basis and a runner may not be able to join the relay each time. If enough women regularly sign up, alternate groups may be formed every other weekend. Interested runners can contact Tara at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Challenges at Work
For Tara, the COVID-19 outbreak presents challenges at work, too.
Her job as a PA with the myeloma group at the Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in North Haven involves guiding oncology patients and their families through treatments and regimens. She has worked at the cancer center for close to five years, but has been a PA for 19 years.
“I take care of patients with multiple myeloma, which is a blood cancer. Currently there is no cure, but the treatments have improved significantly over the last 10 years, with the advancements made from clinical trials,” she explains.
She says that treating cancer patients in the midst of COVID-19 presents unique difficulties.
“If there is a new diagnosis or if someone is relapsing and not doing well, requiring more intense chemotherapy or more frequent visits is a concern on many levels. For example, is there room in the hospital to admit our patients for an intense chemo regimen? Is it safe? Should we hold off on the admission and try a less intense outpatient regimen? In addition, clinical trials have been shut down in most of the country and we rely on clinical trials with novel agents to help our patients. Fortunately, with the COVID-19 numbers improving, clinical trials will be opening back up slowly,” she explains.
The clinic has implemented new protocols as a precaution to protect cancer patients from the coronavirus.
All workers at the clinic wear a mask when entering and leaving the building as well as throughout the workday because they share clinic space with other providers, nurses, and medical staff. At the start of the day upon arrival and at the end of the day before leaving, each worker’s temperature has to be checked and documented. Finally, all members of the staff sterilize their workstations daily.
The clinic has also made consultation adjustments to help patients. For instance, some in-person visits have shifted to video or telephone visits. Although the change can prove challenging because it prevents physically meeting or examining some patients, it does allay their fears.
“There are some patients who are frail or elderly and concerned about coming to a cancer center. We have tried our best to reach out to them via video or phone for their monthly visits and [evaluate] if we are able to change their treatment from intravenous or subcutaneous to oral, or to space out their infusions to reduce the number of visits to our infusion area. A lot of our patients are on an oral maintenance regimen and it is easier to do this from home, but they still need to go out and have lab draws either weekly or monthly. In some cases, patients do not want to go to a lab, so we have to set up home blood draws,” she explains.
While numerous adjustments have had to be made for the safety of the patients, Tara says “all has gone fairly smoothly.”
She works from home in Madison two days each week, giving her a chance to be with her husband, Matthew, and their children, Everett, 10, and Eden, 9. For the other three days, Tara goes to the clinic to be available for patients who may need to come in for any reason.
“We have tried to limit the face-to-face interaction. But some patients still require bone marrow biopsies and directed physical exams. A lot of our patients are still coming into our clinic/infusion center for treatments with our nurses. Our infusion nurses still see everyone face-to-face to administer chemo. We all wear masks, but it is still a risk they are willing to take. Our infusion nurses have been amazing throughout this pandemic and have really stepped up,” she says.
Her job is one she truly loves, and she recalls shifting to primary care only to come back after a year to taking care again of her myeloma patients.
Although the job can be difficult, she says “most of the time it is very rewarding. We help our patients and families through their journey by educating them on what myeloma is and how the treatments are able to help.”
She admits that it is this relationship with her patients that makes the work worth it.
“The bond we develop with our patients and their families is a true rarity,” she says.