Greek-American Dr. Christina Yannetsos qualified for the USA Judo Team in 2004 in her judo weight class and was on her way to the Olympics in Athens, Greece, when a shoulder injury during the U.S. Olympic Trials that year kept her from competing though she was able to attend the Athens Olympics as an alternate and training partner for the team, an article on the Team USA website noted.
Putting her Olympic dream behind her, Yannetsos fulfilled another dream, becoming a doctor and serving now as an emergency room physician and assistant professor of emergency medicine for the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine in Denver, while still continuing her involvement with USA Judo, as the official Head Team Physician for the USA Judo Team.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Vice President of Sports Medicine, Research and Innovation Dustin Nabhan invited Dr. Yannetsos to serve the 2020 United States Olympic Team as a Sports Medicine team member for the official Team USA Delegation at the Tokyo Games, now rescheduled for 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. She received the call in late 2019 and accepted, but with the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Yannetsos could soon see that her plans were going to change not only for the Olympics but as a doctor.
Since judo is an international sport, Dr. Yannetsos followed the news closely concerning cases of COVID-19 in countries around the world and the United States, and soon the announcements of cancelled tournaments began coming in until all elite level international judo competitions were cancelled.
Dr. Yannetsos said, according to the Team USA website, “Things were happening really quickly. Our day-to-day in the emergency department was changing quickly as well. As things were changing we kept up with the CDC and I sought advice through some of our Infectious Disease physicians and some of the leaders here at the University of Colorado just to make sure we were doing all the right things to keep our athletes safe. I’m not competing anymore, but I think of the athletes as my colleagues and teammates and I want them to be safe, healthy and successful.”
According to Team USA, Dr. Yannetsos’ medical expertise was called upon to counsel USA Judo decision makers as they postponed and rescheduled upcoming tournaments.
Dr. Yannetsos noted in the Team USA article that the friend she had made in her time competing internationally helped keep her informed about the pandemic, “I feel like we are all blessed, and also kind of cursed, with social media. We have availability of information that we didn’t have before. There are a number of people that I either trained with at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center (Colorado Springs) while I was there or that I was an athlete when they were like Keith Morgan who is in Canada and a Sports Medicine physician or Jenny Wong who was a wrestler and works with USA Wrestling. There are a number of athletes who have become medical personnel or just athletes around the world that you know. You can see how people are doing and how things have impacted them. We have family currently stationed in northern Italy as well. Here in the United States, the last thing we wanted was to have this virus explode like it had in other countries. We were/are trying to heed the warnings from those other countries (that are ahead of us) and we are trying to proceed cautiously.”
“In being an emergency physician, you go through medical school, you go through years of training and nothing prepares you for what you see and face every day in the emergency department with COVID,” said Dr. Yannetsos. “It’s as if everything that we’ve learned has kind of been thrown out in the woods so to speak. We learn and train that when someone is in distress, run in and help save them and now we are focusing on making sure everyone is protected. Make sure you have your protective gear on gowns, protective masks and face shields. The donning and doffing of putting on and taking off of this gear is quite laborious to be honest; it takes time. There are real exposure risks, which is why protective equipment is so important to us and why we protect ourselves.”
“I think the main thing when you think of a wartime mentality is the camaraderie. It’s the team building experience for lack of a better word. I think of my Judo team when you’re training and trying to get to the Olympics, you build this bond with people and you go through the ‘trenches’ and you go through some really tough times. You have each other to pick each other up. You have each other to push you through really tough situations. We have so many amazing people that work in our facility and that’s who we turn to. It’s team camaraderie. Also, as an athlete you focus on being your best. Sound of mind, thought and sound of body. The importance of taking care of yourself, exercising, eating right and sleeping. It comes into play also as a physician going through this pandemic. You have to have your own mantra, whatever it is. Every day when I go into work I think about ‘I’m going to save lives today,’ or whatever it is to get you through. For me I actually wear some socks that I think are going to give me super powers whether it’s like ‘girl doc’s rock’ or ‘go girl doc’ whatever it is; I wear those and those give me strength. But it’s kind of like mental preparation. You go into the department and you kind of have this game plan. For me, I drive in and I listen to some upbeat music and I’m like ‘it’s a great day to save lives.’ You go in and you’re in your competition mindset, you’re focused, focused on the next patient. You have a difficult case which can be a difficult match and you kind of have to bring yourself back together and get yourself back in the mindset so that you can move forward to help the next person. So I think there are a lot of parallels, especially with competition.”
Dr. Yannetsos and colleagues from the American College of Emergency Physicians on April 28 participated in a virtual meeting on COVID-19 and issues facing emergency departments and healthcare workers with U.S. Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, and U.S. Representatives Doug Lamborn, Diana DeGette, Ken Buck, and Jason Crow.
While helping patients and battling COVID-19 on the frontlines, Dr. Yannetsos is staying positive even after the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.
She said in the Team USA article that “all of these athletes have worked so hard and they’ve put their lives on hold to reach a goal and have this accomplishment of training for the Olympics and medaling at the Olympics and all of a sudden they are being told that they have to wait another year. I know that all of us will come through and succeed with it, but it’s still challenging. Putting your life on hold and having things change, I think that’s why we’re very adaptable and so I know that our mental strength will be able to overcome that. The risk of COVID is very real. Ultimately I think they (Tokyo 2020 and the International Olympic Committee) made the best decision when they moved forward to postpone the Games. Dating back to Ancient Greece, sport and the Olympics brought together people at times of great difficulties. Wars would be stopped for the Olympics. I think that the athletes represent hope, normalcy, and achievements that people really look forward to watching and supporting. I think that at the end of all of this the Olympics are going to represent hope for people. There’s no greater joy that I get than working with our athletes and supporting our athletes. It’s so very rewarding intrinsically for me. I’m truly honored.”