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Trading The Pool For A Hospital, Jenny Thompson Is Ready To Fight COVID-19 On The Front Lines

By Joanne C. Gerstner | May 05, 2020, 6:47 p.m. (ET)

Jenny Thompson is now working as an anesthesiologist in Charleston, S.C. 


About six weeks ago, Dr. Jenny Thompson had a low moment where she fell into fear and despair. Her hospital in Charleston, South Carolina, was preparing for a wave of COVID-19 patients, and Thompson worried about what was to come not just for her, but also for the public and her medical colleagues.

Thompson, for many, is better known as the winningest female swimmer at the Olympic Games, with 12 medals — including eight golds.

But that was two decades ago.

Today, Thompson, an anesthesiologist, is feeling more confident about her situation, as the coronavirus health emergency that has overwhelmed other cities has not yet materialized in Charleston.

"We are very lucky not to have had the surge that other places have had — yet,” Thompson, 47, said. “We were lucky to have the time to prepare and get our act together in case we do have a surge at some point. We’re watchfully waiting.”

Thompson’s moment of fear in late March centered on concerns of not having enough personal protection equipment, or PPE, such as disposable gloves, face shields and masks. 

She turned to two close friends from college, Stanford swimming teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer, to talk through her concerns. And like true old friends, they listened, comforted her and then jumped into action to help Thompson stay safe and feel better.

“I was crying on a call, saying, ‘I could die from this.’ I was scared not to have enough PPE,” Thompson said. “Gabrielle was an angel, she was buying me masks and shields, things the hospital didn’t have yet. They really jumped on my fears and said, ‘What can we do?’”

Brainstorming ways to get supplies, they hit upon crowdfunding.

Rose and Maurer created a GoFundMe to support purchases of PPE supplies for Thompson and her colleagues. It quickly took off, with friends, family and members of the international swimming community rallying to support her. Close to $11,000 was raised before the GoFundMe ended.

“I felt so loved and supported,” Thompson said. “I just was so touched by the outpouring of support, from friends and family, the swimming community, even people I didn’t know. It brought me a feeling that this is a crisis, but all of these people have my back. These are people who I have known throughout my swimming career, and ones like my high school friends. I was lifted up by so many people who cared; they wanted to help me.”

She urges those who want to donate to COVID-19 relief to look at GoFundMe drives for individual medical personnel or organizations located in the hard-hit cities of Detroit, New York, New Orleans and Los Angeles.

“The best way is to help the care workers on the ground directly,” she said. “There are places where things are very bad. It’s getting better, but it is still terrible."

“Folks need PPE. They need it and are not able to get it. The PPE is marked up like crazy, it’s crazy the way this world is working right now. Go find the people who need the help and give them your efforts if you can.”

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Thompson said there is enough PPE at her hospital, thanks to events like the fundraiser and also her hospital working hard to get supplies ready. If a COVID-19 wave comes, and there are critical patients who require assistance to breathe, Thompson would be called upon to intubate and put them on a respirator.

She has training in critical care, from her Columbia University medical school education and residencies, and stands ready to help in the intensive care unit.

“I feel prepared. The whole situation feels good right now,” she said. “We are ready to take this on. I don’t feel scared.”

Still, while Thompson feels better about her work situation, she understands the risk for bringing COVID-19 home to her husband, Daniel Cumpelik, and their three children. They have developed a system to protect the family; her vehicle, dubbed the “COVID car,” is off limits to rest of the family; and her shoes and clothes from work are changed three times before she enters the house.

Her husband normally works from home, so Thompson is the only one in regular potential contact with the virus. She has also planned for the worse-case scenario — if she suspects she has COVID-19, she would move to the apartment above their garage to cut off all contact with the family.

“I do worry about bringing it home,” Thompson said.

Thompson the doctor understands the need to physically distance and take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

But Thompson the swimmer is also feeling the pain for the postponement of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. She competed in four games — 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 — and understands the long and hard work to prepare for an Olympic competition.

“My heart is broken for the athletes who were all gearing up for this summer,” she said. “They are mentally strong, and this is a challenge they can face and overcome. I was torn — as a doctor — when the Olympics were not rescheduled yet.

“I see it both ways. It was going to be a public health disaster. But as an Olympian, they have spent their whole life gearing up and they want to compete. The smart decision was made, because I just think it be a disaster and expose them to COVID. I really feel for them.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.