Natalie Fichter, nurse and student-athlete, on the frontline against COVID-19

20th April 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Early last season, after the IU Southeast Grenadiers women’s basketball team lost reserve post-player Gabby Read to injury, Natalie Fichter was moved to center.

She had played the position in high school, at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Kentucky, but at 5-feet 9-nine inches tall, had played small forward or guard at IU Southeast.

Her toughest challenge came against the University of the Cumberlands, when she was tasked with guarding an opposing player who stood 6-3.

“Having to play someone who is obviously taller than you was tough,” said Fichter. “But it was a good learning game, for it helped me get back into the swing of playing that position, which I think helped me for the remainder of our season.”

The season went well. With Fichter contributing in numerous roles, the Grenadiers went 20-12, earning a spot in the River States Conference Women’s Basketball Championship game. Fichter emerged as the team’s second-leading scorer.

Fichter’s willingness to take on new challenges, her resilience under pressure and her ability to learn from adversity have never been more essential than now: Fichter, a nursing major, is on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19 at the University of Louisville hospital.

Just like that move from guard to center, it wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In December, Fichter began working as a patient care assistant at the downtown Louisville hospital. On a typical day, she arrived in the afternoon and immediately set to work, introducing herself to patients, letting them know that they would be in her care through the night, checking charts to make sure she was informed about their needs, then taking their vitals, giving baths and repeating the process every four hours to make sure each patient was being properly cared for.

“Words cannot describe how excited I was to start this job that would have me set for when I graduate with a nursing degree,” Fichter said.

That all changed with the arrival of COVID-19. While others lamented being furloughed or stuck at home, Fichter and her colleagues were suddenly forced into overdrive.

Now when she arrives at the hospital, she takes her own temperature to make sure she does not have a fever. She fills out forms to verify whether she has experienced symptoms such as shortness of breath or coughing, or whether she has come in contact with anyone who has COVID-19. She puts on a mask–just one per shift–and disposable scribs, gloves, gown and face shield.

And only then does the work begin. It is virtually all about coronavirus patients now. The pace is faster than usual, which suits Fichter’s style and level of fitness. But the psychological intensity can be wearing.

“I deal with some patients who are obviously frustrated, sick, exhausted, and they sometimes take it out on us,” Fichter said. “It’s mentally tough because you’re trying to please each patient, and sometimes it just isn’t enough.”

For Fichter, the switch has been challenging, but like the move to center, it’s a new chance to serve.

“Now when I go into work, I know I am putting myself at risk of catching COVID-19, and I have had many people say, ‘just call in’ or ‘its not worth it’ or ‘don’t take the risk'” Ficher said. “My response to each person is, ‘This is what I signed up for, this is the job I love, and this is when I am needed most.’”

That attitude is no surprise to coach Head Coach Robin Farris, who has seen Fichter grow into a leader on the team.

“She is fearless and willing to sacrifice for others,” Farris said. “She has strong values and a tireless work ethic instilled in her by her parents, and the pandemic has shown how she is willing to step up and help others in a difficult situation.”

Natalie Fichter. Photo by Lexie Fisher, IU Southeast Athletics.

Family is certainly one key to Fichter’s resilience, grounding her in love and respecting her path in life, even though it means that she must put her patients’ needs above theirs, and hers.

“After long night shifts, I have a tendency to get moody if I don’t get my sleep,” Fichter said. “They still put up with me, and continue to love and support me even though I may not be the easiest person to be around.”

She also draws daily inspiration from the Bible.

“One of my favorite verses to read, especially with all of this going on, is Joshua 1:9,” Fichter said. “‘Be strong and courageous, do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.'”

For Fichter, “compassionate care” is not just a mantra she learned in nursing classes. It is second nature, implicit in everything she does. It is what allows her to be energized by her work, even through it may be trying.

“This experience has only made my calling to become a nurse so much stronger,” Fichter said.

Her drive to change lives, and to save them, was born in childhood, as she watched her grandfather succumb to a heart attack. It gained strength through years of tending her uncle, who suffers from ALS. During five years working as a lifeguard, that drive sharpened in a role demanding both patience and physical skills. And in her hospital work it has deepened into a devotion that transcends mere physical care.

“I have learned that I am so much more than someone who just checks patients’ vitals, blood sugar and weight, or gets them food or changes their dressings,” Fichter said. “I am able to become a listener, and a friend.”

While preoccupied with the present, Fichter finds time to plan for the future, and that means a return to the basketball court. She is excited about the team’s prospects, with its blend of returning and new players. They keep their team bond alive via Facetime and Zoom. Fichter aims to take on a larger leadership role, and is already leading virtual workouts.

For all its success, last year’s Grenadiers came up just short, losing to Ohio Christian University (OCU) in the season finale.

For Fichter, it was the kind of setback that, predictably, fuels improvement.

“It was hard seeing OCU celebrate and take pictures with the trophy on our court,” Fichter said. “We want it to be us celebrating, and it will be us–our team is really dedicated, and I am already looking forward to the first tip-off of next season.”

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