Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons of Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital knows all about the importance of teamwork and putting in long hours to attain success in a craft.
Before becoming a doctor, she put in the work to be a high-achieving student-athlete at UCSB for four years. As Lynn Nisbet, she twice earned All-American and All-Mountain Pacific Sports Federation honors in water polo in 1999 and 2000.
Today, Fitzgibbons is an infectious disease physician and faculty member with the Internal Medicine residency program at Cottage Hospital. She recently transitioned to an adminstrative role as a member of the COVID Incident Command Center at the hospital and helps with infection control at Cottage Health. She also collaborates closely with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
In a recent Q&A with UCSB Athletics, Fitzgibbons reflected on her experiences dealing with the coronavirus and about her time as a college student-athlete. The athletic department shared the interview with Noozhawk.
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Question: Describe your role within the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital response to COVID-19.
Answer: I usually spend my days seeing patients in the hospital and teaching clinical medicine to medical students and resident physicians. Since the start of the COVID epidemic, however, I have transitioned to a mostly administrative role as a member of the COVID Incident Command Center. My days are spent working with physicians and our administrative leadership, helping to ensure our system is as good as it can be, that our staff are safe and protected, and that our patients continue to receive excellent care. I’ve also overseen several treatment programs at Cottage, including our COVID Convalescent Plasma Program and Remdesivir allocation recommendations.
At UCSB, I’m collaborating on research projects, including a large SARS-CoV2 surveillance testing project on campus in collaboration with professor Carolina Arias and student health, and an NSF (National Science Foundation)-funded project with professors Xifeng Yan and Yu-Xiang Wang in computer science, with a focus on forecasting COVID-19 models. Finally, as an adjunct faculty at UCSB, I co-taught Geography 6 this quarter with professor Susan Cassels, and we focused on the geography of the COVID-19 epidemic for the first several weeks.
Q: What makes this particular virus so worrisome and challenging?
A: SARS-CoV2 is a novel virus, and so our immune systems as individuals or as a population are not prepared for it. Many people have mild or no symptoms when they become infected, but, unfortunately, a small percentage are not so lucky and suffer terrible, often life-threatening complications. Even a small percentage of a large number, in this case the global population, is still a large number of people who are battling the worst this virus has to offer.
Q: Although you are a professional, is it difficult to cope with the massive suffering of others?
A: Every year in my career, I’m faced with tough cases and tough situations. This year has obviously been unique, with the gravity and the magnitude of the suffering seen around the world, as well as here in Santa Barbara. There have been some tears and frustrations, but I’m surrounded by incredible co-workers, leaders and family to support me through the tough days and to celebrate the victories.
Q: In your opinion, will some of the practices that society has adopted as part of the response to the virus outbreak became permanent?
A: Until we truly have robust population-level immunity, many of the infection-control practices around our society will likely remain. The strictest of the policies will likely loosen, and we will develop a better understanding of what practices are most beneficial. I don’t think it’s likely that life in March or April of 2021 will be identical to life in March or April of 2020. I do, however, suspect it will look substantially different than March and April in 2019.
Q: How did your time as an athlete at UCSB impact your career?
A: Playing water polo at UCSB was the absolute highlight of my college years and helped give me a really strong foundation in so many ways. I made wonderful friends, played for incredible coaches who were even better people (Joe O’Brien and Chuckie Roth), traveled, and all this while playing the most fun game in the world!
Q: Are there practices, procedures and habits that you formed as a student-athlete that have served positively in your profession?
A: Student-athletes are conditioned to find balance from a very early age. Navigating the college years with a focus on hard work in the classroom as well as in the pool comes naturally to so many swimmers, water polo players and other athletes in their own venue. If you’re going to prepare to take on UCLA this weekend, why would you do it with any less drive than you plan to take on the chemistry test next week? Learning how to keep multiple spinning plates all spinning simultaneously was a skill that has served me well.
Q: What advice would you give current Gaucho student-athletes as they navigate these uncertain times?
A: These months have been unbearably hard, particularly for athletes at the peak of their careers. I don’t know how that feels, and I’m very sympathetic to the sacrifices many of them have faced. I hope the path ahead involves a return to practice and play in a safe, not too prolonged way.
I imagine many athletes have a new appreciation for their sports. My advice to the current Gaucho student-athletes would be, when play resumes, attack every workout, every scrimmage, every game, every class, every exam and every challenge that comes your way without fear of failing. I was never the fastest, the biggest or the strongest, but I realized quickly that I loved water polo and was willing to work hard and wanted to be the best that I could be. Win or lose, the sun will come up tomorrow, so why not put it all out there and see what you can really do?