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Home / Columns and Features / A Rochester Olympian/doctor battles COVID-19 on front lines

A Rochester Olympian/doctor battles COVID-19 on front lines

scottteaser-215x160The recent Facebook post of her in doctor’s gown and N95 mask and visor evoked strong emotions. Many thanked Ann Marsh-Senic for her heroic work as an emergency room doctor on the front lines of a global pandemic. Some added that the photograph reminded them of the protective head gear she wears in her other job as a fencing coach.

During these challenging, surreal times, the convergence of Marsh-Senic’s worlds is not lost on her. The wearing of masks. The importance of maintaining a safe distance. The need to make split-second decisions that could spell the difference between victory and defeat, or, more importantly, between life and death. In her sport of choice and her profession of choice — one must always be en garde, at the ready.

“Fencing is incredibly fast-paced,’’ she said. “So is life in the ER.”

And rarely has the pace been more frenetic than this past week as the University of Rochester Medical School graduate and three-time Olympian spars with the invisible foe known as COVID-19 in one of the disease’s new hot spots — metropolitan Detroit. “There’s been a significant increase in the number of (coronavirus) cases in recent days,’’ she said by phone during a rare day off the other day. “Fortunately, our leadership (at Independent Emergency Physicians) and the hospitals we serve have been ahead of the curve. So far, we’ve had enough ventilators and protective gear. And our community has been so supportive. I’ve had friends from high school and our fencing families drop protective equipment off at my doorstep. It’s been heart-warming to see the way people have rallied.”

Marsh-Senic is viewing the impact of the coronavirus from many different perspectives. First, and foremost, as a doctor who has examined patients diagnosed with COVID-19. But, also, as a wife and mother of a 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. As a small business owner of a fencing club trying to survive with online classes during a time when its doors are shuttered to promote social distancing. And as a former Olympic athlete and coach who understands the sense of loss and frustration competitors are feeling with the postponement of the Tokyo Games until next year.

“Like I’ve told my kids, it’s OK to be angry and upset that things are being canceled or delayed,’’ she said. “Obviously, when you have a pandemic, you don’t have a choice. We all have to make sacrifices, do our parts.”

The uncertainty associated with the coronavirus has heightened anxiety. Daily updates on mounting numbers of infections and deaths are unnerving. Time has begun to play tricks with our heads. Days feel like weeks. In these troubled times, it’s important to call upon familiar things — things that bring comfort and structure, and take our minds off the unknown. For Marsh-Senic, fencing is just what this doctor ordered. It is a constant she can rely on.

The sport has been a huge part of her life since she grasped a sword for the first time as a 12-year-old. She took to it immediately, winning team foil national team championships eight times, and competing in the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000. She spent seven years with the Rochester Fencing Centre, joining sisters Felicia and Iris Zimmermann to make the Flower City the epicenter of the sport.

After retiring from competitive fencing, Marsh-Senic delved into coaching, coordinating the U.S. Olympic men’s and women’s teams at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero. In recent years, her focus has been on the Troy, Michigan-based Renaissance Fencing Club she runs with her husband, Anatolie Senic, a former Maldovan national champion and long-time Wayne State coach. They currently coach about 200 members, including 140 youth fencers of varying ages. One of their star pupils is their daughter, Adeline, a nationally ranked fencer who was supposed to showcase her skills at last month’s North American Youth Cup competition in Detroit before it was canceled because of the pandemic.

“She and the other kids who had worked so hard were really looking forward to that, so that was difficult,’’ Marsh-Senic said. “I tried to explain to my daughter logically why we have to practice social distancing right now and cancel events like this. It’s tough for people, especially young people, to understand why we have to stay at home right now, and I get that.”

Marsh-Senic thinks back to the uncertainty she felt when she came to Rochester to train after a difficult performance at the 1992 Summer Games. She had briefly quit the sport out of frustration and now found herself in a new city not knowing what the future might bring. “It was an anxious time for me,’’ she said. “I didn’t know if it was going to work out or if I was just wasting my time. I stuck with it and was able to overcome my anxieties. I see some parallels with what we are going through now. It’s like an athlete being fearful because there is so much unknown.”

Like many small business owners, Marsh-Senic and her husband are attempting to weather the storm via technology. They offer Zoom fencing classes six days a week. Adeline and her brother, Lucas, demonstrate the moves on camera from the empty fencing club, while Marsh-Senic and her husband comment on how students can replicate these drills at home. “We think it’s essential to try to keep things going and people engaged, even though we can’t be together in person,’’ she said. “We’ve waived our fees for the month of April. But it’s difficult because we still have expenses for rent, up-keep, utilities, taxes, etc.”

The virtual connections are important during this time of isolation. So is exercise, even if you can’t get to the gym. “I think regular exercising can be very beneficial to people right now,’’ she said. “It can help make you feel better, get your mind off things.”

Though positive cases of COVID-19 have begun spiking in Michigan, Marsh-Senic said she and her colleagues haven’t experienced equipment shortages and haven’t been overwhelmed by the disease the way health care workers in so many places have. She’s fully aware of the gravity of the situation. Her heart goes out for her comrades on the front lines across the country and world. She is trying to stay as positive as possible. There is a sense of calm and reassurance as she speaks. “We can get through this,’’ she said. “We just have to continue doing what we’re supposed to do and remain patient and supportive.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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