Katie Holloway plays sitting volleyball at the Summer Paralympic Games Beijing 2008 on Sept. 12, 2008 in Beijing, China.
Katie Holloway has won three Paralympic medals with the U.S. women’s sitting volleyball team, accomplishments that don’t come without a tremendous amount of fortitude and dedication.
These days, however, Holloway is being tested in a different way as she works to provide much needed healthy outlets and promote wellness for thousands of employees in the Veterans Administration hospital system in Northern California amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The silver lining in all this is I know I’m more exposed, but at the same time I know it’s needed and in my job, my role, everything I can do to add value during this time is super important,” said Holloway, who won a gold medal in 2016 and a silver medal in 2008 and 2012 at the Paralympic Games.
Holloway started with the VA in 2013 as a recreational therapist working with veterans who were the highest utilizers of the emergency room and hospital, trying to reduce their usage of those services through alternative modalities, she explained. After two years she moved to her current role as employee fitness and wellness coordinator where she’s in charge of programming and opportunities for 5,000 employees throughout the VA Palo Alto health care system.
Typically, her role includes providing everything from fitness challenges to yoga classes to smoking cessation programs to ways to increase movement throughout the day in order to help employees stay mentally, physically and emotionally healthy.
These days that need is even greater.
As a federal agency, the hospital had to prepare to act as an emergency center for the public should the need to treat COVID-19 patients surge in the community. Although that hasn’t happened, Holloway said, she and many employees have been part of a labor pool for over a month now that’s part of the emergency management system. For her, that’s meant working two shifts a week as a screener asking people coming to the hospital about their symptoms and helping direct them to the correct place if they need to be tested for COVID-19.
She’s also still maintaining her duties trying to help employees stay well, which is challenging in the current climate. They are fortunate that they aren’t overloaded treating virus patients like some areas are, she said. But they do have, for example, nursing home staff caring for a compromised population who can’t have visitors. They also have staff members with children at home or spouses with underlying medical conditions or aging parents who are worried about bringing the virus home but still have to come to work.
“There’s a lot of suffering going on,” she said. “Our employees are very stressed.”
It’s incredibly difficult watching people put themselves at risk, she said, but seeing others springing into action to do what they can to help during this time is a positive that’s come from the situation.
One person who’s done just that is sitting volleyball teammate Bethany Zummo, a 2016 Paralympian who has made over 700 masks in the past few weeks.
Zummo learned how to sew when she was a child from her mother and grandmother — “I’ve always sewn; I’m the old lady of the volleyball team,” she joked — and after they learned that fabric masks would indeed help to keep people safe she got to work. She’s sheltered in place under the same roof not only with her mother and grandmother but also her sister and aunt and they’ve made it a family project.
Zummo created a website, zummocollective.co, where people can request masks and although they’ve been sewing essentially all day every day, she said, they won’t take anything more than donations to keep the production going and won’t stop until there are no more orders.
“We’re going to continue to help until they don’t need us anymore, and that’s a good thing when they don’t need us because that will mean this is over,” she said.
Holloway recently posted a photo of herself in the parking lot at the hospital wearing one of the masks Zummo created.
Overall, Holloway said, in terms of what the VA staff is dealing with they’re extremely positive and resilient.
“There are a significant amount of changes that come day-to-day and communication is all over the place, and in that regard our staff is navigating that really well,” she said. “I work in a department where everyone is the utmost team player and every day, they’re out there greeting people, smiling, screening patients. It’s all hands on deck.”
On a personal level, Holloway said, she’s doing her best to practice self-care more diligently than ever before and doing whatever she can to stay happy and healthy so she can continue to serve the VA employees.
“The larger purpose for me in all this is that balance,” she said. “I know I’m at a higher exposure risk because I’m seeing more people and potentially more COVID-positive people coming through but at the same time I feel like I’m serving a greater purpose. That’s really important to me and I feel good about that.”