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As Paralympic athlete and nurse, Mark Barr has unique perspective on ‘unifying’ coronavirus fight

Apr 2, 2020

It’s never really about what life throws at you.

It’s all in how you handle it.

In Mark Barr’s case? That’s been pretty much seamlessly.

Imagine being a nationally ranked swimmer and dealing with osteosarcoma and an above-the-knee amputation to your right leg at age 14. Then turning a recovery room conversation about frustration into a Paralympic swimming career. Then eventually morphing that into a Paralympic triathlete career, 2018 Elite Paratriathlete of the Year honors and an ESPY.

Imagine, too, that while you’re on that road, turning the same recovery room conversation into a professional career as a trauma ICU nurse. Then watching a rule change turn dreams of the Tokyo Paralympics into hopes of Paris in 2024 as you are transitioning back to school to get a nurse anesthetist degree.

And we didn’t even get to a 48-hour trip to Tokyo followed by a whirlwind duathlon — it was supposed to be a triathlon but the swimming leg was scrapped because the water was filled with e.coli — where he had to use a bike that was too small and a shoe and pedal that were also too big because those didn’t arrive with him.


Throw in the new normal — social distancing, flattening the curve and online classes — as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic?

Hey, Barr said, it is what it is right now as we fight this battle together,

“It’s a dynamic experience,’’ Barr said. “This isn’t even a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we’re going through now. It’s extremely challenging and people have to be flexible and patient with it all.

“The silver lining of it all is it’s making people not take things for granted and the other silver lining is you’re going to learn hand hygiene extremely well. Hopefully we’ll see a plateau in all viruses — the flu virus included. It’ a learning curve for health care professionals, the World Health Organization, the CDC … everybody. Each day you wake up (there’s) something new — new data, new suggestions and it’s important for everybody to take it a day at a time.

“We’re talking about life or death here. It’s a small sacrifice that can go a long way. It’s a selfless task to help others and it’s cool to see people rally.’’

And adapt.

A year ago, Barr was working 12-hour shifts in the ICU trauma unit at Ben Taub — and fitting in triathlons when he could.

Now, he’s finishing his first year back in UTHealth’s demanding three-year nurse anesthetist program and he’s suddenly doing it all online.  And, for the time being, no more once or twice a week hands-on clinical labs.

“It’s a small curveball,’’ Barr said. “We’ve learned to adapt a lot in school so our class is handling it pretty well. The professors doing awesome at UTHealth. They’ve spent countless hours working on online lectures and transitioning everything to online.  I’m extremely grateful not slowing down our progress. It’s been interesting, that’s for sure, figuring it all out so we can prepare for finals.

“The second- and third-years are in the clinical rotation part and pretty much all hospitals have closed down to students so they can’t get that experience.’’

And that between semesters getaway break he had planned to Norway? Not happening.

Instead, Barr, like so many elite athletes, is trying focus on school and do his best to stay in shape. With the pools closed, he has been biking and running as often as he can.  “To get,’’ he said, “some vitamin D.”

Barr finished fourth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, but his Paralympic category — P2 — was combined with other less limited categories for Tokyo, which left all P2 and P3 categories at a disadvantage.

The guidelines for Paris have yet to be determined, but Barr is still training as evidenced by that win last August in Tokyo with borrowed equipment. And, while the decision to go for 2024 was a good one for him — even if it does shorten the 2024 training window by a year — he knows moving the Games to 2021 will hurt some of his friends.

“My decision ended up working out pretty good for me in the long run, but it’s very unfortunate for all of my teammates,’’ he said. “They’ve been training and focusing on September, end of August and the Paralympics and having to put that on hold for a year is a definitely a challenge — physically, financial and mental for sure for paralympians who don’t make much money and have to make sacrifices to be at the top of their performance. So, it is pretty heartbreaking for them.’’

For him, it’s about staying in shape and maximizing what down time he has.

“I haven’t been a big gym rat before, but I’ve been doing a lot more of in-home workouts and taking part in the Instagram challenges — push-up, pull-up challenges and it’s cool to see they’ve been going so viral.’’

Earlier this week, he did a 100-push-ups-for-time challenge on Instagram. In just three minutes. He hasn’t been doing a lot of push-ups and it was indeed a challenge. He was exhausted.

“I’ve been mixing it up,’’ he said. “Doing yoga and even did a garage circuit workout which was fun. I’m trying to respect the social distancing because it’s very real, very serious, but also trying to find a nice balance, which we’re all trying to figure out together here.’’

As for the garage circuit? A friend has a rowing machine, a bar and a rope climber in his garage, so they warmed up, then did the rowing machine, squats, press ups, toes-to-bar ab workouts and lower back thrusters. A minute per station and four times through.

And when he’s been on bike rides, he’s been surprised to see so many people out and about. All good, assuming they’re social distancing.

During the crisis, he has seen the opportunities for nurses around the country offering, in some overburdened cities, salaries of $5,000 a week. He’s seen the news stories of nurses and doctors being flown into cities to assist.

“There’s a high demand for nurses that know how to manage a patient on a ventilator,’’ said Barr. “That would be that’s where the greatest need is I think right now — actual ventilators and then how to manage a patient on a ventilator. It’s all hands on deck. Our (ICU trauma) unit had six isolation rooms that provide a germ-free environment. I’m sure they’re being reserved if needed for (COVID-19) patients.”

Barr is thankful that Houston and Harris County currently have beds and remain at manageable levels. And that the health care systems are coming together during the crisis-canceling elective surgeries to free up operating rooms and ventilators in the anticipation of a potential mass influx.

“It’s interesting all hands on deck for medicine,’’ he said. “We’re in a waiting game at this point. It’s kind of difficult to do, but it’s cool see the entire health community come together to fight this together. To pool resources and manage different health care systems working together in a joint effort to tackle this the best way possible.’’

He paused.

“It affects absolutely all of us — in Houston and across the world. The good part? It’s unifying. It’s bringing all races, religions, all colors together. It’s unifying the public as we fight it all together.’’

Spoken like a guy who has been through a few things in his life and knows how to handle this pandemic — with patience and collaboration. On every level.

Like we said at the beginning. It’s not about what’s thrown at you. It’s about how you handle it.

Right now, that goes for us, for the medical community and for the world.

Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.