In any typical year, head athletic trainer Timothy Koberna is most recognizable as the guy on the sidelines of numerous Hope sporting events always ready to administer health care to hundreds of Hope College student-athletes.
But, 2020 was no typical year. As intercollegiate athletics events were stymied and altered at Hope for the last eight months, Koberna still found ways to administer health care to hundreds of Hope students, though. He just inhabited a different kind of sidelines to do so.
Koberna has been directing Hope’s contact tracing program since students returned to campus in August. In this role, he coordinates the communication process between COVID-positive students and their close contacts and helps with large-scale testing of residential hall inhabitants as well as 25% of Hope’s student-athlete population weekly. He also remains up-to-date with COVID-19 health guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and serves as the college’s primary liaison with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health.
“Late in the fall, the CDC was reporting that tracing was occurring in 4+ days, on Hope’s campus we want it to be done within 45 minutes,” he says. “We just don’t want this thing to linger because of the high-risk nature of a residential community.”
Interestingly, Koberna did not seek out serving Hope in this capacity but it was a position he was prepared to fill. In fact, he is a natural for it.
How He Got Started
The process began back in May when the college and state were just two months into remote operations and stay-at-home orders. Time away from campus and his daily routine got Koberna to thinking: What will be the role of athletics in the weeks and months ahead?
“That capacity because of who we are and what we do as allied health professionals, as athletic trainers, it brings us into health care contact with people all the time. We know how to start a health-based interview process and evaluation process and to triage and prioritize different situations.”
“We had no idea how to forecast this [the pandemic],” he says. “And to be honest with you, I needed to prepare myself and my staff this way: ‘Look folks, we may not have athletics in the fall and we may have to show our worth in a different type of capacity.’ And that capacity because of who we are and what we do as allied health professionals, as athletic trainers, it brings us into health care contact with people all the time. We know how to start a health-based interview process and evaluation process and to triage and prioritize different situations.”
So, even before being asked by college officials to lead Hope’s contacting tracing team this fall, Koberna enrolled in an online class through Johns Hopkins University in June to learn the ins and outs of the process. The course is considered the gold standard in contact-tracing education and took seven hours to complete.
“I just thought, ‘Hey, let’s continue to move forward,’” he explains. “I really was not looking at being the guy on campus [to contact trace], but I was looking to add a new set of tools in my toolbox.”
Those tools, it turned out, would quickly be put to good use. And though they were skills that Jennifer Fellinger, vice president of public affairs and marketing and chair of the COVID steering committee, did not know Koberna had newly acquired, what she did know was that his health-care knowledge, organizational aptitude and level-headed demeanor were just what was needed to help Hope during the pandemic.
“Tim emerged at a critical time in our reopening planning as the person with a convergence of interest, capacity, and ability to engage with this kind of crisis-related issue,” says Fellinger. “Contact tracing is super complex, but Tim has the ability to work through the complexity and appreciate the process. For some people, it can be completely overwhelming, but Tim eats it up. That’s the way his mind operates. . . I can’t imagine anybody else who has the skill set to do what he did. We owe so much to him because of what he did with our contact tracing. He is a rockstar.”
Who He’d Like to Thank
In typical fashion, Koberna is one to deflect such words focused on him and project them back onto those who make up the larger testing and contacting tracing teams. “To be honest with you, I’ve had some incredible people who have walked alongside me in this effort and it’s been great. It’s a total, a total team effort with this thing,” he says.
That kind of interplay between Koberna’s humility and expertise is sincere and experiential. Anyone who has worked in athletics for most their lives like Koberna is fully aware of the value and authenticity of team efforts. No one ever succeeds singularly, and the pandemic has only heightened that reality. So, in no particular order, Koberna wants be sure to share public kudos to:
- The testing team consisting of Cindy Sabo, Denise Brink and Danielle Hawkes of the Health Center; Scott Travis of Alumni Engagement; Peter Folkert and Jeff Pestun of CIT; Nicole Dunteman of Student Development; and, Dr. Aaron Best and Dr. Ben Kopek of the Biology Department.
- The contact tracing team consisting of Liz Kubias of Student Development; Kate Ralston and Pat Van Wylen of Alumni and Family Engagement; Julie Huisingh of Public Affairs and Marketing; Michelle Gibbs of the Office of Sustainability; and, Mike Kasher of Campus Safety, and,
- The athletic training staff of Tonia Gruppen, Annie Carrigan, Erik Byl, and Salvador Robles-Soriano.
What Others are Saying
For basketball student-athlete Kenedy Schoonveld, a new and deeper appreciation of Koberna’s abilities as an athletic trainer and a contact tracer was experienced in November when she received a phone call about her possible COVID-19 exposure. Immediately, she reached out to him for advice and assurance.
“We always joke on our team that Tim is kind of like our personal therapist. But it’s true. Even in spite of covid, I think that he brings a really calming presence to our team. He always makes himself available. I feel like as athletes, he always knows what we need, both physically and mentally.”
“I texted him right away, kind of freaking out, not knowing what to do or what that meant,” she says. “He was very calm, of course, which helped me a lot. And then he checked in with me a lot and that was very, very good for me because I was worried about missing class and missing practices.
“Once I got my negative test, he allowed me to come in and run on the anti-gravity treadmill in the training room as long as I wasn’t in contact with anybody else,” she continues. “He put together sprinting workouts for me too, which was really helpful for my mental and physical health during those two weeks. We always joke on our team that Tim is kind of like our personal therapist. But it’s true. Even in spite of COVID, I think that he brings a really calming presence to our team. He always makes himself available. I feel like as athletes, he always knows what we need, both physically and mentally.”
In her work with Koberna, Fellinger also felt some of the same mojo that Schoonveld describes – that ability to deliver just the right words and works at the right moment. For Fellinger, a one-time long-distance runner, that connection was found in receiving marathon metaphors from Koberna to boost her spirits. “He would text me and say things like, ‘Okay, we’re at mile 22. Let’s push through. Keep your head up and keep going.’ And I totally loved it. He thought that metaphor through and used it so well with me.”
While others valued Koberna’s special skills and mindset, he too gained a new level of gratitude for those in the COVID trenches. He always knew they were there, of course, but now he understands how hard they are battling.
“I have a whole new appreciation for public health officials,” he describes. “Public health in the past, from my perspective, has been undervalued. H1N1 was impactful, but I have never had a role in a pandemic like this. So, the appreciation I have for public health officials and the scrutiny that they’re under day in and day out with the decisions that they make is just profound. These are some very, very impressive professionals, because as we know, the virus doesn’t take a day off. It never does. It’s constantly there. It’s so hard to turn yourself away from it. And they don’t.”
And neither does Koberna nor the other professionals on Hope’s frontline. They’ll be back at it again when spring semester starts on Monday, January 25.