Mediaplanet sat down with Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to discuss him pursuing medicine, working in long-term care, and opting out of the NFL season.
What sparked your interest to pursue a doctorate in medicine?
For me, medicine was the perfect balance between the pure sciences (anatomy, physiology, and pharmacology) and human sciences(social science and psychology). You have to be curious and willing to listen to the patient to customize their treatment plan. You cannot only rely on pathology but also have to take into account several different factors to make the best treatment plan possible and optimize the care of your patient. I think the balance between science, psychology, and human interaction is what attracted me to medicine.
Pursuing medicine while I was playing football was about balance. I stopped playing football when I first got into medical school and that lasted for two months. I promised myself that I would do everything I could to pursue both of my passions at the highest level and that motivated me. Football gave me an anchor in another sphere.
How did you balance studying for medical school while simultaneously starting your professional football career?
While I played at McGill, the hardest thing was to combine them both schedule-wise. I had to sleep in the locker room to ensure I was able to make the 7 a.m. meeting because I was on call or doing a night shift.
When I got into the NFL, transitioning from one to the other became the hardest thing to do because you go from an environment where you’re the centre of attention. You have 80,000 people in the stands along with doctors, trainers, and nutritionists to optimize your performance.
On the other hand, you’re also the medical student at the bottom of the pyramid of the medical hierarchy. You’re now part of the team that’s there to optimize the care of the patient.
Football is more rigid and direct when it comes to feedback compared to what you can give to a patient. That transition was the hardest thing. The transition from 2014 to 2018 kind of prepared me for the transition of 2020 — when it went from winning the Super Bowl to working on the front line.
What was the driving factor that led you to opt out of the 2020 NFL season?
After the Super Bowl, I went back and helped for 10 weeks before opting out. Long-term care in Quebec was particularly challenging for everybody. I think it’s important to say I was a part of a movement of thousands of people who went back, which included retired doctors and nurses. That was a special feeling — to feel like you’re a part of that wave of people who are going back to help those who are working, overwhelmed, and tired.
I knew I was going to be evolving in the medical community in the future. It was important to make a decision that was in line with my conviction. Yes, I love playing football but at the end of the day, football is egocentric. I think that going through this pandemic, it was important to sacrifice a little bit of my privilege to help the community. That is what motivated my decision.
I had no idea how it was going to be received. I was worried in the beginning when I posted on Twitter in late July that people would say I was a coward for leaving right before the beginning of training camp. Andy Reid, the head coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, has always respected what I was trying to accomplish with medicine. He helped me the day I got drafted to manage both of my passions. I think his support and the fact that he went to the media supporting my decision removed the weight off my shoulders. I felt like I was making the right decision.
Then I got a lot of attention and praise. To be honest, it kind of defeated the purpose. While I was struggling to work in the long-term care facility, there were people working overtime and night shifts. They were there for the last 25 years with little praise and recognition. At some points, I was almost shy to work with them because I was getting so much attention. From that point on, I tried to direct attention to them — the front-line workers just doing their jobs without question. I think they’re the real heroes of the pandemic.
Can you tell us about your experience going back into health care during a global pandemic?
I met so many great people along the way, some of whom I’m still in contact with. In my first few weeks, I went in with the mindset of trying to optimize everything. I’ve never really been exposed to working in a long-term care facility. That was new for me plus COVID-19, the safety measures, the isolation, and people dying. In the beginning, I only saw the negatives and I was trying to treat patients at all costs. Then I looked around and saw all of the nurses spending time with their patients. What mattered was the comfort and quality of time spent with them. The patients couldn’t see their families and this was the only human interaction they were getting. The nurses spent extra time and really cared for their patients. It was from that point on that I started seeing the positives. There are some amazing stories but if you are too focused on running around and trying to focus on numbers instead of patients then you’re missing out and it can become depressing. All you’ll see are the negatives.
How has your experience in the medical field influenced your professional football career or vice versa?
Studying medicine, of course, makes you a better student of the game. A big part of what we do in professional sports, especially professional football is meeting, installing a game plan and playbook, and looking at tendencies. One of the biggest challenges of football is to be able to study in the classroom and process the information in real time in a game. Imagine you have 80,000 people in the stands, the energy, you have to convert if you want to win the game. It’s easy to get carried away by your emotions and get tunnel vision of the guy in front of you. It’s critical to see in those moments the entire defence and drawbacks of your strategy. We’re at the 25-yard line, they’re presenting this type of defence — it might be a blitz or a twist. Being able to do that is easy in the classroom but being able to do that when you have shoulder pads and helmets on is hard. Being able to make rational decisions in a stressful environment is something we do in football and something that will help me in medicine. In medicine, you never know what is going to step through the door and you have to treat based on priority and cannot get distracted by secondary injuries. I think that a rational approach in stressful environments has served me well in both football and medicine.