On the Front Lines: A Look Inside the Lives of the Equestrian Community’s Medical Professionals During COVID-19

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic began affecting the world in early 2020 and caused the shutdown of many equestrian competitions and activities worldwide in March, the global climate for people everywhere has been altered for the foreseeable future. A number of individuals, as both medical professionals and equestrians, have experienced substantial changes to their professional and personal lives as a result. To gain insight into the lives of medical professionals who are also part of the equestrian community, Phelps Sports spoke with Dr. Brad Wolf and registered nurse, Janet Peterson.

Brad Wolf, M.D., performs operations as a heart surgeon at multiple hospitals in the Memphis, Tennessee, area. His procedures mostly include heart bypass and valve surgery, as well as heart transplants. As an equestrian, Dr. Wolf competes on his own horse, Sunset Hill, in the Amateur-Owner Hunters, having earned a reserve circuit championship this year at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF). He also owns Private Practice, the flashy chestnut gelding ridden to stardom by Victoria Colvin. The pair won the 2018 $289,730 Platinum Performance/USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship and have twice championed the $100,000 World Championship Hunter Rider Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular, among many other victories together. Dr. Wolf newly owns Doctor’s Orders, who Colvin rode to a WEF circuit championship in the Green 3’3” Hunters.

Dr. Brad Wolf (center) is the owner of Private Practice, pictured here winning the 2019 $100,000 World Championship Hunter Rider Peter Wetherill Palm Beach Hunter Spectacular

Janet Peterson, R.N., works in the emergency department at VA Palo Alto Health Care System (VAPAHCS), which provides a full range of patient care services for veterans at multiple locations throughout the San Francisco area. Additionally, VAPAHCS maintains one of the top three research programs in Veterans Affairs. After taking a break from reining competitions for the past year and a half, Peterson was prepared to return to the ring in 2020. She owns Cocktails N Dreams, who earned the championship in the Futurity Level 4 Open and 3-Year-Old Developing Horse Open during the 20th anniversary of Reining By The Bay in Woodside, California, in 2019 with Andrea Fappani in the saddle. Peterson also owns Sunglasses at Night, a gelding that she rides near her hometown of Woodside, California, and hopes to compete in the near future.

1. What did your life as an equestrian and a doctor look like before the pandemic?

Dr. Wolf: “Normally, I would meet my trainer, Tom Wright, and everyone at the horse shows for the weekends. When we are competing in Florida, I get there either Thursday night or Friday night and practice, then show over the weekend and go home Sunday. I don’t always get to spend a ton of time with the horses because I’m mostly working the rest of the time. Basically, whenever I wasn’t at a horse show I would be working in the hospital. I would do surgery all day every day Monday through Friday if I am in town and then take call every fifth weekend. Normally I get to the hospital between 5:15 and 5:30 each morning and work until 6 or 7 at night.”

Peterson, R.N.: “I would work every Monday to Wednesday in 12-hour shifts and every other Sunday for 8 hours, so I normally have nice chunks of time I can ride. I would ride at least three times per week. I have a nice Quarter Horse gelding here in Woodside that I keep at a private residence with a dear friend of mine. I had a nice work-life balance. Before all this, I would go to the barn on my days off. It was a really nice flowing balance. I could leave my job and feel good about everything and go ride, and now that has definitely changed. We would also go to Arizona once a month or every six weeks. We have a place in Arizona and a horse there, so it was a very nice lifestyle. My husband is a veterinarian and we both work hard so we can get the time away.”

2. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your life as a medical professional?

Dr. Wolf: “It has changed quite a bit. Where I live in Tennessee, it is not nearly as bad as it is in other places like New York, but the governor has stopped all elective surgeries. A lot of our surgeries are semi-emergencies, but I’d say it is down by about 30 to 40 percent. I think a lot of patients are scared to come to the hospital even after they have been diagnosed because they don’t want to be where people are sick or could possibly catch coronavirus. Other patients don’t come, period. I think they may have heart attacks or chest pain and stay at home because we have not been seeing nearly as many people as usual. We have maybe 20 to 30 people in our hospital that have been diagnosed with coronavirus at any one time, so it is not a huge amount and we can definitely handle it. It’s really been a change in that respect.”

Janet Peterson, R.N., riding Star For The Chicks. Photo by Alden Corrigan Media

Peterson, R.N.: “It’s changed dramatically. I’ve always loved my job. We have a lot of patients we see a lot. We call them “frequent fliers” and that is not in a derogatory way. We get to know some of them and if anyone gets hospitalized I would go to the hospital and bring them books or visit or something. Now, we don’t do that. The whole atmosphere has changed and it is much more stressful all the time because you don’t know what you are going into. I have put in some extra hours, but we’re trying to keep things standard so that we don’t have people coming in when they aren’t scheduled to do so. The hospital is on lockdown and we don’t let visitors in. These patients that are coming in can’t bring family, so all of a sudden that patient advocacy piece has really risen to the top because you are their person. It’s a very emotional, hard time seeing people come in with nobody, and sometimes you are even limited to what you can do. We are fortunate that we don’t have the expected number of COVID-19 patients, but we are still seeing some patients that are very sick. Reading in a report that the patient died a few days later is very heavy right now.”

3. Have you had to transition your work responsibilities in any way during this time?

Dr. Wolf: “Personally, I haven’t had to deal with a lot of patients that had the virus, but I have had some. I can definitely see the fear that some people have, being fearful of going to work and catching a bad disease. You have to be extra careful, but that’s what we are meant and paid to do. That’s what our job is and we have to do it. I do feel some amazement when I see the nurses that stay in there all day. At least I can go in to see the patient and leave. They are some incredible people, and I’m amazed by them. It’s sad because this is something that we have never seen before, and it is crazy to think that something like this could happen in this day and age.”

Peterson, R.N.: “My duties haven’t changed much, but I have transitioned into looking into the patients that are going to be admitted and making sure they really medically need to come in. There is a huge emphasis on that right now, so now there is more pressure on me to determine those things. The VA does a good job and really takes care of its veterans, so normally if you had a 90-year old dad that wasn’t doing well at home and needed to cme in, we would admit him and do some work-ups, but now we aren’t doing that. We are trying to keep as many beds open for COVID patients as possible in case they come. It’s a balance to keep resources open while also keeping admissions as appropriate as possible. It can be a bit counter-intuitive because it goes against our philosophy. We have to send people home because we don’t want them to get sick.”

4. Have you been able to see your horses or participate in equestrian activities at all since the pandemic began?
Dr. Brad Wolf riding Private Practice at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Photo by KIND Media

Dr. Wolf: “They stopped all the horse shows when we had two weeks of WEF to go, so I haven’t seen the horses since then. We were planning on going to the Devon Horse Show, so we left all the horses in Florida at that point. They have been ridden some and are training, but I don’t get to see them since I live in Tennessee. We decided to leave them in Florida so that the people that take care of them and the riders, like Tori Colvin, don’t have to travel to the horses. They can all be there to keep their training going. At the time, we didn’t know how long it was going to be. Of course, now it keeps getting longer and longer. It is disappointing because it was supposed to be my first year to show Private Practice at Devon, but it is what it is and we all just have to take it in stride.”

Peterson, R.N.: “I can sometimes casually see my horse that is near me, but I haven’t seen my 4-year-old horse in Arizona since the beginning of March. I got out probably two times since the shelter in place order started to see my gelding in Woodside. The woman that I ride with is high-risk because she is over 75, so I don’t want to bring anything to the barn with me. Especially because of my exposure in the emergency department, I don’t feel that is appropriate. I have gone out to see him and hug on him, give him a few treats, but then I leave. We were actually in Arizona for a big reining show when all of this hit, so we drove back home with our dogs to basically a complete lockdown. We were driving through San Jose and there was nobody on the freeway.”

5. Has it been difficult for you not to interact with your horses as a way to release stress or as something to do outside of the hospital?

Dr. Wolf: “I have a lot more free time, but unfortunately I can’t ride with all that extra time since the horses aren’t here, so it’s very different. Being with my horses was the one area where I could have an enjoyable weekend and get my mind off of the hospital. It has thrown that off because even if I wanted to go to Florida to ride, I couldn’t get there. Especially as someone who is around a hospital all the time, it wouldn’t be wise for me to travel anywhere.”

Peterson, R.N.: “It’s been really tough. That had always been my sanity – going out to the barn and riding or just even brushing him. Just the smell and the calm. That was always my therapy. Now, with work it doesn’t end. You hear on the news about how many patients and healthcare workers they have lost and it’s constant. There’s no stress relief. You can’t just go out to the barn with a cup of coffee and enjoy it. You don’t leave the stress at the hospital anymore. There’s nothing like going out to the barn, pulling a horse out of his stall and just spending time with him. All of us are feeling the stress in the industry, and us equestrians now don’t have an outlet to relieve that stress.”

6. How has the pandemic affected your personal goals with horses?

Dr. Wolf: “I was having a great year and then all of a sudden it just abruptly ended. I’m waiting to see how things play out to set new goals for myself and my horses. This was a year that we really did sit down and map out exactly what we were going to do, especially with Private Practice. I haven’t ever gotten to show him at Devon or indoors and my trainer, Tom, wanted me to do that this year. Of course, that has changed. This is probably the longest I’ve been without going to a horse show in years. We had planned to go to Aiken, Devon, some Traverse City and Derby Finals in Kentucky, but I don’t really know if we will do any shows this year. It’s up in the air and we have to consider the whole team. A lot of our grooms are a little bit older, so we need to think about them and whether they would want to be traveling, staying at foreign hotels and eating out at a horse show. Even if things do open up, we need to think about all of them, too. And then indoors, do you want to go into an arena with so many people? It kind of makes you nervous.”

Janet Peterson, R.N., at the Cactus Reining Classic in Scottsdale, Arizona. Photo by John O’Hara Photography

Peterson, R.N.: “This is a year that I was planning on competing again. For the past year and a half, I took a break while we were going through some transitions and working more. I wasn’t getting to Arizona as much to train and ride. My trainer in Arizona is so wonderful, but you can’t just casually ride. If you are going to compete, you need to make a commitment. I had been going to Arizona every other week for four or five days, riding and taking lessons. We were going to gear up to do that again this year, but everything has been put on hold. Normally, we would be planning out our shows.”

7. How has this changed your perspective on your professional life or your time with your horses?

Dr. Wolf: “From my perspective, I can see people dying all around me and it is so horrible, hurting the economy and people don’t have jobs. I said to myself that it is sort of selfish to even think about being sad because I didn’t get to go to a horse show. I’m so thankful that I have my health, and the horses and employees are healthy. We will just try to do it again next year, hopefully. In some ways, there are silver linings. My trainer has told me that they are able to work on my young horse more and bring him along better at home because they can spend more time with them. It’s sad for me that I don’t get to help, but I’m happy to be updated by Tom. This is giving the horses some time to grow up. I think it is going to change the horse industry for a year or two until we can get a vaccine. I think that remains to be seen.”

Peterson, R.N.: “When you don’t have it, you really miss it. I’m hoping the silver lining is that we will all really appreciate the things we love to do once we have access to them again. I think the appreciation is going to be huge. I loved my life, but I’m going to love having it back even more.”

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