By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, May 14, 2020
Four-time Olympian and eight-time gold-medalist Jenny Thompson became a doctor largely because of her mother.
She grew up admiring the hard work displayed by her mother, Margrid, a lab technician who worked in an intense hospital setting to provide for Thompson and her three older siblings.
“I began to entertain the idea of becoming a doctor as a senior in college, but health/wellness has always been an interest,” said Thompson, a member of the 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004 U.S. Olympic teams.
“I always admired how my mom played an important role in caring for sick patients. Her influence plus all that I learned about health and wellness through swimming guided my career choice.”
Margrid passed away in 2004 several months before Thompson qualified for her fourth Olympics.
During that time, she was working on her medical degree from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, where she graduated in 2006 and then completed her residency at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She did her fellowship in pediatric anesthesiology at Children’s Hospital of Boston.
These days, Thompson is an anesthesiologist at The Ralph H Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston, S.C.
She works with many COVID-19 patients, although not as many as in some other states.
She said so far, South Carolina has not had the surge of COVID cases like other states, and they have been lucky and have used the time to prepare.
“This is only the beginning, I suspect,” she said of the pandemic. “So far, we have not had many COVID patients at all. We are taking care of people who can’t wait for surgery or other procedures requiring anesthesia, people with cancer, blood vessel blockages or other urgent surgical problems. Since COVID can be asymptomatic at first, we are very careful.”
Thompson and her family – husband, Daniel, and three children – moved to Charleston, S.C., in 2018 because they enjoy spending time outside in the warm sun and couldn’t do that where they were living in the Northeast.
She added that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced her love for medicine and reminded her why she pursued this as a career choice.
“Helping sick patients heal and caring for them at their most vulnerable moments was the reason why I went into anesthesiology and medicine in general,” said Thompson, the most decorated Olympic female swimmer with 12 medals. “With COVID, at first I was scared of not having the proper personal protective equipment (PPE) and of dying, honestly.
“But now that I feel our hospital is well prepared and we have the proper PPE, I have gotten over that fear and am ready for this challenge. I’ve always thought of healthcare workers as heroes. My mom was my hero – she was a strong woman who worked to help take care of the sick. I’ve just aimed to follow in her footsteps.”
Amidst all the uncertainty associated with the coronavirus, social distancing and quarantine at home, Thompson said it has been very uplifting to feel the love and support of friends and family around the world.
Last month, she started a GoFundMe with the help of her friends and former U.S. teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to help supplement PPE for her anesthesia colleagues.
She said the response was a “tremendous outpouring of support.”
“I have just been so touched by people’s love and support in this trying time,” said Thompson, who brought home 14 (7 gold) World Championship medals during her illustrious swimming career.
“There have been so many heartbreaking issues, I don’t know where to start, but seeing healthcare workers around the country get sick and die because they didn’t have the proper protective equipment is especially heart wrenching.”
Thompson said that when it comes to her job, she is able to depend upon many of the traits and lessons she learned as a competitive swimmer – most notably the importance of roles within teams and having each other’s backs no matter what happens.
“Teamwork and supporting your teammates by lifting them up psychologically- this has been the most practical translation from swimming,” she said. “My co-workers – the other anesthesiologists, the nurse anesthetists, the nurses and surgeons – they are my team and we have worked better together during crisis than ever before.
“At Stanford, the strength we shared as a team raised us up individually and gave each of us strength, and I see that in my day to day work the hospital.”
And as for her feelings about the decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics and subsequently U.S. Olympic Trials until next year, Thompson, who competed in multiple Trials during her swim career, sympathizes with what they may be experiencing.
But just as she would prepare for a big meet, she said the important thing is to face the issue, make a plan and move forward to make the best of the situation.
“My heart is with everyone in USA Swimming right now (as always) because the shut downs, unemployment and cancelations are affecting everyone one way or another,” she said. “A part of what gets a swimmer to the elite level is an ability to face challenges head-on, to defy improbability. It is normal to have fear with uncertainty, but we will get through this.
“(As for the virus), I’ll leave the projections to the medical statistician experts, but one thing I do know is that people need to stay vigilant about hand washing and social distancing when able, especially now that the country is attempting ‘to open for business.” Until we have an effective vaccine or cure, its best to be very careful.”