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Behind The Photo: Liz Stephen Takes An Olympic Work Ethic To The COVID-19 Front Line

By Peggy Shinn | May 14, 2020, 11:58 a.m. (ET)

Liz Stephen cleans the walls at Intermountain Healthcare hospital in Park City, Utah.

Liz Stephen has always been a team player. And a hard worker. So it was no surprise when the three-time Olympic cross-country skier was caught on camera washing the walls of Intermountain Healthcare’s hospital in Park City, Utah. Stephen is a patient care technician at the Park City hospital.

What was a surprise was the reaction to the photo.

Brenda Puchalski, Intermountain Healthcare’s surgical services director, posted the picture to the hospital’s Facebook page on April 3 as COVID-19 raged across the country. Over the next few weeks, it was shared 270 times and received 90 comments—plus more shares and comments as the photo went viral, no pun intended. 

“It’s not that Liz was doing anything more than anyone else was doing,” Puchalski told TeamUSA.org in a video call from her office in the hospital. “What it represented to me is just the employee who was making a really horrible time in this world—lives being lost, people dying, people not knowing what their future looks like—and just saying, ‘Hey, I’m willing to step in and help.’”

For her part, Stephen had mixed feelings about the photo garnering so much attention. Stephen and coworkers had stepped in that day to help environmental services, the department tasked with keeping the hospital clean. Stephen wanted the people who do that job on a daily basis to be thanked as much as she was being thanked. 

“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t want this to be about me,’” Stephen said on the video call, which she joined in her scrubs and surgical mask. “It should be about the people who do it all the time. 

“But I think what it shows is that everyone was doing jobs that weren’t theirs. It was in a bigger vision of helping people and the hospital get through a crisis, and you just go where you need to go.”

* * *

Stephen, 33, has long been known for her teamwork. During her 12-year career on the U.S. Ski Team, she claimed six national cross-country skiing titles, won a U23 world championship bronze medal, was on every U.S. women’s 4x5-kilometer team that finished on the world cup podium until her retirement, and claimed six individual world cup podium finishes. 

More importantly, she was an integral part of the team that helped Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall win the nation’s first Olympic gold medal in cross-country skiing in 2018. She was always there to cheer on her teammates, to push them in training, and lend a shoulder or give a hug to anyone who needed it. In her final race as a member of the U.S. Ski Team in March 2018, she famously wore a tutu and a race bib that read “Fun Leader.”

Liz Stephen at her final career race in 2018.

Stephen then dove into school to finish her college degree with the goal of becoming a nurse. For 12 years, the Burke Mountain Academy graduate had taken online classes but had to save the hardest classes and ones with labs for her life after skiing.

Last fall, she realized that the science classes would mean more if she could relate them to work. So on Jan. 1, 2020, she began working as a patient care technician at the Park City hospital. She also helped coach the high schoolers with the Park City Nordic ski team, and she competes in the occasional marathon (her next athletic goal is the Chicago Marathon in the fall, if the race happens).

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Until the COVID-19 crisis, Stephen worked in same-day surgery and endoscopy, and she loved her coworkers and the team atmosphere.

In mid-March, with elective surgeries canceled to keep hospital beds free for a potential surge in COVID-19 patients, Puchalski and the other nurse managers redeployed the surgical staff to other departments as needed.

“Talk about being in a job where no one likes you,” Puchalski said. “Some said, ‘Sure, no problem,’ versus others who said, ‘What? We have to do what? That’s not fair.’”

From mid-March through early May, Stephen and her surgical staff colleagues took night shifts, cleaned the surgical floor, worked in the ICU and emergency department, took a mobile unit on the road to test people for coronavirus, whatever needed to be done.

Not knowing where they would work day-to-day was challenging. But Stephen was adaptable.

“You just go where you’re needed,” she shrugged, then took off her mask to show her usual big smile.

In early April, Stephen and her colleagues were asked to help environmental services. A coworker took the photo of Stephen mopping the walls—impressed that a three-time Olympian would literally do any job asked of her.

Puchalski went home that night and said to her husband, “There’s this new patient care tech, and she’s an Olympian, and she’s sitting there scrubbing the walls like it’s her job.”

He replied, “Of course she is, that’s her level of commitment. She didn’t get to the Olympics by being someone who sits on the sidelines.”

Puchalski posted the photo on Intermountain Healthcare’s Facebook page and wrote in part: "A photo that truly represents the spirit of so many in healthcare today.” The comments poured in.

“The world needs more people like Liz,” wrote one person. “What a great example she is for all of us.”

“I love to see and hear of people of every level of life coming together on the same level to do one thing,” commented another. “Help everyone regardless to get through this together.”

In early May, with the COVID-19 curve flattening, Intermountain Healthcare began outpatient surgeries again. So Stephen and her surgical coworkers are back performing their usual roles. 

But Puchalski still takes heart in the wall-washing photo. If and when COVID-19 cases surge again in Utah, she knows the hospital can rely on people like Stephen.

“How it hits us, I don’t know, no one knows, no one can predict it,” she said. “What I do know is when it does surge, there are people who are going to make this crisis easier and much more manageable because even if it hits us one-tenth of what it did to New York, people are going to work long hours, and they’re going to see some horrible stuff. And when you have people on your team who say, ‘I will help, whatever you need,’ it comforts you when this is not a comforting time in the world.”

Deflecting praise to her teammates, Stephen added, “A big thank you to the team that’s here.”

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Liz Stephen

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