Sarah Duff ’21 Uses Lessons Learned on the Field Hockey Team to Help COVID-19 Patients

April 20, 2020
By: Guest Contributor

Normally at this time of year, nursing major Sarah Duff ’21 would be in the middle of her field hockey team’s non-traditional spring practice schedule, perhaps running sprints on Coughlin Field, leading her team in a post-practice stretch, or working out with her teammates in the DeFeudis Fitness Center.

Her spring season, however, turned out to be non-traditional in a completely different sense. Duff is working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A member of the reigning Little East Conference champion Worcester State field hockey team and a First Team All-Conference selection last season, Duff usually works as a patient care assistant (PCA) on the telemetry medical surgical floor at UMass Memorial Medical Center in downtown Worcester. She has since been transferred, however, to a unit dedicated strictly to patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.

As a PCA, Duff’s job entails providing direct patient care and aiding nurses. The pandemic has caused a severe staffing shortage, which has led Duff to pick up even more shifts than usual. Prior to the pandemic, Duff was only working four shifts a month at the hospital. She’s now working five shifts (40+ hours) per week.

Duff admits that her new role can be emotionally draining at times, but she doesn’t have a single regret. “It is very scary working at times like this, especially since I am in the thick of it, but it is also very rewarding knowing that I am helping people.”

Duff must wear an N95 mask, goggles, gloves, and a gown throughout the hospital, but all that equipment doesn’t necessarily make her feel completely protected.

“Each time I go into a room with a patient who tests positive, I think about how I could be catching the virus myself, or worse, (that) I could be bringing that same virus home to my family,” she says. “But then I think about how each person in this room is the family member of someone, and how I, right now, am this person’s sense of ‘family,’ which to me makes this risk so much more justifiable.”

“I and another nurse may be the only interactions these people have (each) day, which is why I take time in each room to connect with the patient and make them feel like a human,” Duff says. “The hardest thing to be asked is to hold an iPad while a family FaceTimes with sick relatives in the hospital when they are unable to communicate.”

Her time spent on the field at Worcester State has benefitted Duff immensely since transferring into her new role. “Being a team player is huge on COVID floors,” she says. “Everyone has to help each other and hold strong communication.”

Duff is receiving top-of-the-line, real-world nursing experience from working through these unprecedented times. “Not many people can say they have worked through a pandemic in their lifetime, so I find this opportunity to be huge,” she says. “Everything going on has only made me want to become a nurse more, and has helped me find the motivation to push through the last year of nursing school to finally pursue what I am most passionate about for the rest of my life.”

“Sarah has run into the fire head on and, although the nature of her job right now is scary, she hasn’t blinked an eye,” says a proud Alexa Carlson, Worcester State head field hockey coach, who recently named Duff a captain on next year’s team. “She has been an excellent leader on and off the field for our program the past three seasons, and this is just another example of her strong character and selfless nature.”

Having seen what can happen firsthand, Duff shared some advice on how to flatten the curve.

“The biggest thing others can do right now is take the stay at home (orders) seriously and stay inside,” she says. “Coronavirus is real and it is scary, so others need to do their part as well.”

While she is certainly not seeking praise, Duff appreciates and is encouraged by the positive outpouring of support she and her coworkers have received.

“Going to the break room for a meal that a local company has provided, the police parade that circled the hospital, and even the little stones set around the pathway to the hospital with words such as ‘hope,’ ‘smile,’ and ‘heroes’ are just little glimpses into the little things that keep all of us going in times like this,” she says.

Originally posted on the Worcester State Athletics Website as part of a Healthcare Heroes series.

If you or someone you know is a current or former Worcester State student-athlete working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact Sports Information Director Curtis Fraser at

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