As the leader of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Medical Intensive Care Unit strategy for the care of COVID-19 patients, Dr. Todd Rice hasn't had much downtime over the past 11 months.
Neither have any of his colleagues at VUMC, as they've cared for patients from Nashville and beyond throughout the pandemic, and Rice admits none of this has been easy. But they're more organized as a unit now than they were when it all started back in March of 2020, and almost a year later, Rice is starting to see an end in sight.
That finish line is not here yet, however, and the days - and nights - are still long.
Work-life balance, Rice says, is more important than ever, and for him - as well as plenty of his counterparts - part of that reprieve comes in the form of Predators hockey.
"That's what creates or helps prevent burnout and create a safe environment, and the Predators are one of those life balances that I think a bunch of us have here," Rice, also a Preds Season-Ticket Citizen, said. "There's a relationship between Vanderbilt and the Predators, and so a number of people view the Predators as our own at Vanderbilt."
The partnership between the Preds and Vanderbilt has always been steadfast, and even through a pandemic, the bond has remained. In fact, if anything, it's grown stronger.
Rice and his team have needed that encouragement during a time that seemed almost unimaginable a year earlier. Each and every person that calls Nashville and Middle Tennessee home has been affected in some way since then, but for those on the frontlines, the task at hand has been overwhelming.
"It's certainly been nonstop, endless work," Rice said. "And up until a little bit more recently, it was nonstop, endless work without really an end in sight. We knew that there was going to be an end, and we were going to get out of this in the backend at some point, but we didn't really know when that was. It definitely wears people out, and there's a high level of burnout.
"Some of this is emotionally trying for us because we get invested in our patients, and then some of them unfortunately don't survive. They don't make it, and I think it's hard when you're emotionally invested in a person you've poured your heart and soul into taking care of that person and then that person doesn't have a good outcome. That certainly wears on the bedside nurses and the providers a lot."
Even through the hardships, there have been moments of reprieve, and the Preds have helped to play a role from the beginning. The color Gold is prevalent throughout the halls at VUMC, and many sport Predators lanyards with the "We Stand With You" and "Stand With Us" slogans on them.
There have been lunch deliveries and Zoom calls too, and once things get back to normal, Rice plans on being one of the first through the Bridgestone Arena doors and back to his seat to cheer on his team.
"There was a lot of support from the community for these frontline workers, and they're hometown heroes and that sort of stuff, but a lot of that was led by groups like the Predators," Rice said. "There's signs on campus that say "We Stand With You," and it was very clear that the community was behind us, but it was also really clear that of all these organizations, the Predators were one of the big ones leading that charge."
The Preds will continue to show their support by wearing the Vanderbilt Health logo on their navy helmets when they sport their adidas Reverse Retro uniforms on six occasions this season - the first of which comes on Monday - as a way to honor the tireless work being done by those at VUMC to keep Middle Tennessee safe and healthy.
The game of hockey is not nearly as important as what these doctors and nurses do every day, but to them, the partnership with the Preds offers a much-needed respite from time to time to think about something other than the stress of saving lives.
They're heroes, but even heroes have a right to breathe for a moment.
"The Preds have always been in that role, but it became really visible during this," Rice said. "It's always been appreciated and understood by people here that the Predators have been supportive of the Medical Center and the work that we do, and they led that charge, but for us it was sort of like, 'Of course they led that charge, they've been there the whole time.' And it wasn't just like they came out of the woodwork during this pandemic, this is kind of an extension and just a little bit more of what they were doing even before the pandemic started. They've done even more in this time of need."