Running to shine a light on mental health

PennMedicine nurse Samantha Roecker has been running since the seventh grade, competing in high school and college, even qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic trials. But the Boston Marathon which she just completed—her 12th marathon since she ran her first in 2014—was like no other.

For one, Roecker competed in scrubs, aiming to set the world record for the fastest marathon in a nursing uniform. More important to Roecker, however, was her reason for running this particular race: to raise money in support of the mental health and well-being of nurses. In partnership with the American Nurses Foundation, she collected more than $45,000 so far

“I have a lot of close friends who are health care workers who have suffered immensely during the pandemic,” says Roecker, who works as a clinic nurse in the otorhinolaryngology practice at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine and is studying to be a practitioner nurse (NP) at Penn‘s School of Nursing.

One of Roecker’s close friends from high school, a physician assistant in New York City, began struggling with mental health challenges after working for months in what became the epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States. “She just saw so much she did n’t expect to see her in her life,” Roecker says. “I’ve been trying to help her, to support her. I wanted to come up with something that could make her smile.”

Samantha Roecker running in the Boston Marathon, with many runners around her. She wears bib number 281.

Roecker ran the marathon in 2 hours, 48 ​​minutes, and 11 seconds, beating the previous world record for fastest marathon in scrubs by about 20 minutes. (Image: Allen Pangilinan)

Roecker started poking around and saw, surprisingly to her, that someone held the world record for running a marathon in scrubs. She trying to break that might be a good way to give her friend decided a boost. Roecker also knew there were so many more health care workers who needed support, too. Wanting to do more, she started talking to everyone she could think of, including June Trestonwho directs Penn Nursing’s Family Nurse Practitioner Program Track.

“She told me about her plans for the marathon in January,” says Treston, who, in addition to teaching Roecker, supervises her in her clinical rotation in the Emergency Department at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey. “I love Sam’s story. She has such compassion for her friend from her, enough to identify her needs from her and to navigate the waters of getting her help from her, understanding that there are so many barriers. She really turned it around to help all nurses struggling across the country.”

By now, the burden COVID-19 has placed on the health care community is well known. As an NP working in an emergency department, Treston saw it firsthand. “I was privy to the entire unfolding of the COVID pandemic. It’s been so hard on health care providers,” she says. “Not knowing what’s going on, your family’s worried, you’re watching people die, they have no family there, and we have no supplies. On so many different levels, it’s been traumatic.”

Because Roecker herself works in an outpatient clinic, she didn’t have the same close-up experience as Treston or her friend in New York. “Having said that, the pandemic has affected everyone in every job,” Roecker says. “In health care, specifically, so many times, we don’t have definitive answers. Patients get frustrated—rightfully so—and then that frustration carries over to us. The whole health system has felt the pandemic in one way or another.”

During the pandemic, running became Roecker’s outlet once again, as it had been for decades. The 2022 Boston Marathon, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first “official” women’s division for that race, gave Roecker specific goals.

She teamed up with the American Nurses Foundation to raise funds for this cause, which had become personal and important to her. “Now more than ever, health care workers are the front-page news stories we’re seeing, yet there isn’t always support behind those words,” Roecker says. “The American Nurses Foundation has this great well-being initiative that checks so many boxes.”

Leading up to the race, she ran 20-mile practices in scrubs but, as she put it, left the big test for the big day. In the end, she did what she set out to do, running the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 48 ​​minutes, and 11 seconds and beating the previous world record by about 20 minutes. “I definitely didn’t go into this marathon my fittest or fastest,” she says. “But this race just served a different purpose for me, to support and represent nurses and other health care workers who have struggled the past two years.”

Samantha Roecker is a clinical nurse in the otorhinolaryngology practice at the Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine. She is also a student in the Family Nurse Practitioner Program at Penn‘s School of Nursing.

June Treston is the director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program Track in the School of Nursing and a nurse practitioner in the Emergency Department at Cooper University Hospital.

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