Morehead State student-athletes are no strangers to challenges and hard work. Three former Eagle athletes are now on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic: soccer alumna McKenzie Hicks (15) and golf alumnae Sarah Debnekoff (18) and Lynn Grunkemeyer (12).
Morehead State soccer alum McKenzie Hicks is used to battles. On the field and off.
A native of Ft. Thomas, the Highlands High School soccer standout came to campus in 2009 and has survived cancer not once, not twice, but three times. She helped the Eagles battle their way to the 2010 Ohio Valley Conference Tournament title and is now helping patients battle illness, including COVID-19, at Cincinnati (Ohio) Children’s Hospital. Hicks is a registered nurse (RN) on the Vascular Access Team.
“I have always wanted to be a RN since I was little because my mom is a RN, and I thought that was so awesome that she got to take care of patients for a living,” she said. “I am also a three-time cancer survivor so that also motivated me to go into the medical field and take care of other people just like my nurses took care of me.”
Hicks has turned back Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, originally being diagnosed as a sophomore at MSU in 2011. She had to cut her playing career short but still was a crucial member of the program.
With all the battles and situations Hicks has gone through and made her stronger, she admits the pandemic has been tough but credits her hospital’s dedication to keeping its staff safe.
“As a RN on the Vascular Access Team (VAT), we go all over the hospital to draw blood for labs, place IVs and place PICC lines in patients that need more access points for medications and IV fluids. We also access patient’s ports and troubleshoot central line problems. Those patients are some of the sickest patients in the hospital and also include the patients with COVID-19,” she said. “As a precaution, we have to wear masks at all times during our 12-hour shift and have been fit-tested to wear N95 masks during COVID-19 patient encounters.”
Hicks also said that her shifts have had to change during these times.
“Since the VAT is such a small and specialized department, we implemented a different staffing model for the past seven weeks (in order to limit possible employee exposure) where half of our team worked for two weeks and then had two weeks off work while still getting paid,” she said. “It has been amazing how supportive the hospital has been and has really eased the burden of worrying about bringing home the virus to our loved ones.”
Speaking of loved ones, her fiancé also happens to be familiar with Morehead State Athletics. Hicks is engaged to former Eagle baseball standout Andrew Deeds (12), who set numerous records during his career from 2008-12. The couple had planned a wedding for May 9 but has since postponed the ceremony until July.
Hicks said all her medical experiences and the situation currently happening has made her sit back and realized just how blessed she is.
“These experiences have made me realize how blessed I am to be healthy and to have healthy friends and family. I am also grateful to still have a job during these uncertain times,” she said.
Hicks has also learned some new skills.
“I have learned to cook and bake a lot of different recipes that I have never made time for before the pandemic,” she stated.
But one of the main ideals that has stuck with her since her time as an Eagle with head coach Warren Lipka has been teamwork.
“Teamwork is everything!” she said. “It’s important because of communication and knowing that everyone is working towards the same goal. Being a RN, I am always working closely with my co-workers to come up with the best, safest, individualized plan of care for each patient.”
Hicks will keep fighting every day for the health of her patients and her own, and that is why she is the epitome of why #EaglesAlwaysSoar.
MSU women’s golf alum Sarah Debnekoff certainly knows the concentration it takes to be successful on the course. She also knows now the concentration it takes to help critically ill patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Debnekoff, who finished her four-year Eagle career in 2017-18, has literally been on the front lines of the pandemic helping patients breathe. Debnekoff, from Rancho Cordova, California, is a respiratory therapist at Norton Hospital in Louisville.
She admitted the challenges built up.
“As the COVID situation began to unfold, the hospital I work at began to get very busy. As a respiratory therapist, one of my main responsibility is to give aerosol treatments to patients with respiratory distress,” she said. “As a result, we were giving breathing treatment to patients with COVID-19. However, as more information came out about COVID-19, there was significant concern about the virus being aerosolized. As a result, the hospital quickly made sure we were protected.”
She had to adapt to changes quickly but praised her facility for being ready.
“Over the first few weeks, regulations changed quickly as more information was available,” she said. “The hospital was able to secure PAPRs and later CAPRs, or hoods/masks with an airflow system to protect from aerosolized and airborne particles. This ensured that with the constant fear of limited PPE supply, we would be protected.”
She said a family legacy in healthcare led to her interest in the field.
“My mom was a nurse when I was growing up and watching the impact she had on her patients, as well as the fulfillment it gave her really sparked my interest,” she stated.
Soon, she and her mother will be joined in the family legacy by her fiancé, who happens to be an Eagle alum himself. Pat DiSalvio (17), Morehead State’s punter for the football program, is in his third year at the University of Louisville Medical School. She said he’s adapted as well.
“When the pandemic started, the med school pulled students out of the hospital to conserve PPE. He has been finishing up his third year online with plans to re-enter the hospital at the end of May,” she said.
The couple also plan to get married in July.
Debnekoff played for head coach Stephanie Barker from 2014-15 until 2017-18, finishing as high as second place in the Eagles’ own Citrus Challenge her senior year. She was once named Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Golfer of the Week.
“During my time as an MSU Eagle, I learned many life lessons from being on the golf team and from Coach Barker,” she said. “She would always tell us that no matter the situation, we should try not to complain and make the most out of the situation. As a result, I try to do my part and be a good co-worker and stay as positive as possible because being negative will not improve the situation.”
She said she has learned life lessons as well during the past few months.
“During this time, the hospital significantly restricted the visitor policy. Patients were in the hospital without family or even the occasional visitors,” she commented. “I found during this time patients were left feeling very lonely and afraid. As a result, I feel my compassion for my patients grew.”
Debnekoff is on track to graduate this month with her Master of Health Science Degree in Respiratory Therapy.
She (and Pat) are truly the epitome of why #EaglesAlwaysSoar.
Most days you can find Morehead State women’s golf alumna Lynn Grunkemeyer working with athletes at Centerville (Ohio) High School near her hometown of Dayton.
Grunkemeyer, who played for the Eagles from 2008-11, is a certified athletic trainer for Premier Health assigned to the school. Since high school sports aren’t taking place right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Grunkemeyer has found herself on the front lines screening patients and visitors at the hospital entrance.
“Typically, I am an outreach athletic trainer but effective March 16, I was reassigned and I am now stationed at the entrance to one of the hospitals in the health system screening patients, visitors and employees prior to them entering the facility,” she said. “All the screeners have been wearing PPE and we require anyone entering the facility to use hand sanitizer before they can proceed into their appointment or area of work. We also sanitize the entrance area and commonly touched surfaces regularly.”
While it is not her typical day of helping people, that’s exactly what Grunkemeyer knew she wanted in life when she came to Morehead State after transferring from the University of Kentucky for the 2008-09 season.
“When I started my college academic/athletic career, I knew I wanted to do something in medicine in order to help people,” she said. “I was involved in athletics for many years and I wanted to be able to help others achieve their athletic goals. Sara Larson, the head women’s athletic trainer at the time and now the associate director of retention and advising at MSU, suggested I pursue my master’s degree in athletic training. The more I looked into it, the more I knew it would be the perfect fit for me.”
Grunkemeyer played three seasons for head coach Stephanie Barker, with her senior year being the best. She helped the Eagles capture the 2011 OVC Tournament title as they went on to compete in the Notre Dame NCAA Regional that season.
She was the team captain for three years at Archbishop Alter High School, where she was the Team MVP and a First-Team GGCL All-Star in 2005.
She credits the team atmosphere with her experience playing collegiate golf and especially the camaraderie at Morehead State for her success now.
“I think being part of a team at MSU has been a large part of my success. Typically, I am not in the hospital but having been part of a team at MSU has helped me adapt easily and adjust to working with a different team of people and a different schedule,” she said. “At Premier Health we are all important parts of the team fighting this pandemic and even the smallest things are huge to our success.”
She also said her normal routine at the high school involves adapting just as much.
“My job at the high school is all about adapting as schedules change,” she stated. “This experience has helped me grow as I have had to interact with all kinds of different people, go with the flow and, of course, I am extra thankful.”
Even though she is in Ohio, Grunkemeyer said there is still Eagle spirit in the Buckeye State. Her manager, Amy Bernard (99), is also an MSU alumna.
Adapting and thriving, that is what makes Grunkemeyer another example of why #EaglesAlwaysSoar.
Stories courtesy of MSUEagles.com, Matt Schabert.