The scariest part, former NFL wide receiver Nate Hughes says, is just not knowing. Not knowing enough about the coronavirus. Not knowing if he could catch the disease during a shift, and unknowingly infect his family. Not knowing when a surge of cases, like the one that has overwhelmed health care facilities in New York, might strike his hospital in Mississippi.
"You know it’s coming," Hughes told USA TODAY Sports. "You just hope you’re prepared and hope everything’s in waiting, to help take care of people."
Nearly eight years after his playing career ended, Hughes is now a first-year resident at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi — one of the tens of thousands of health care workers at the center of a global war against the coronavirus.
After graduating medical school last spring, the 35-year-old is entering a demanding field during a particularly demanding time, working to master his specialty while at the same time providing critical care for patients during a pandemic — and putting himself at risk in the process.
Nate Hughes, a former NFL wide receiver now training to be an anesthesiologist, poses for a 2017 photo. (Photo: Courtesy of University of Mississippi Medical Center Communications)
"It’s definitely tough," said Hughes, who is training to become an anesthesiologist. "It’s one of those things where you do everything you can to prevent (yourself) from getting it, and you do everything you can to keep from spreading it, but it appears so late that you don’t really know if you’ve been infected or if you’ve infected someone else."
As the coronavirus continues to spread rapidly and unpredictably across the United States, leaving more than 4,500 people dead as of Thursday, it has brought devastation to states such as New York and Michigan — while others, like Mississippi, are still bracing for its impact.
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Hughes said his hospital has established coronavirus units on certain floors, and started screening doctors and nurses for symptoms before they enter the building every morning. UMMC spokesperson Ruth Cummins said there were 22 patients at the facility who had tested positive for coronavirus as of Thursday, in addition to an unspecified number of employees. Two patients have died.
Hughes said he's most worried not about whether he will get COVID-19 while at work, but whether he will be asymptomatic and unknowingly infect others. His wife, Angel, is a Coast Guard pilot currently stationed in Miami. So when Mississippi schools went on spring break and later closed, Hughes left their three children — ages 5, 2 and four months — to stay with his parents, who are in their 60s and live a few hours away.
"I’ve limited my exposure to my kids, to limit their exposure with the potential virus to my parents," he explained. "It’s kind of weird. I have seen my kids in the past two and half, three weeks, but I haven’t really gotten a chance to engage and play with my kids in the past two and a half, three weeks."
That lonesomeness has become one of the unforseen challenges of Hughes' job, but a reality he accepts. He always seemed destined for this type of career, helping and serving others — even during the five years he spent as a wide receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions, among other teams.
Hughes grew up learning about the profession through the eyes of his father, Nate Sr., who is a nurse anesthesist at UMMC. In second grade, the younger Hughes said, he was told to write down what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wrote pro football player and doctor. Not either. Both. And then he made it happen.
While earning all-American honors at Football Championship Subdivision school Alcorn State, Hughes also pursued a nursing degree to gain practical experience. He stuck with football for a while, bouncing around active rosters and practice squads — but during the offseasons, he would volunteer at local hospitals. And when the 2011 lockout hit, Hughes got a full-time job as a nurse.
Shortly thereafter, as he and his wife discussed starting a family, Hughes decided to fully pivot to a career in medicine.
"Nate is one of those rare individuals who can do both," said Claude Brunson, an anesthesiologist and longtime family friend. "He’s certainly not what you’d consider the traditional — as folks stereotype people — athlete or football player."
Hughes' first year of residency has exposed him to various lines of work. He spent last month working in the hospital's internal medicine division, treating patients with ailments ranging from respiratory infections to hypertension and heart failure. This month, his focus is anesthesia, which will require him to spend more time working in patients' airways and lungs — and, in turn, potentially put him in closer contact with coronavirus.
At the end of June, Hughes will move to New Jersey, where he will spend the next three years continuing his anesthesia training while completing his residency at Rutgers.
"Nate will be on the front lines of dealing with (coronavirus)," said Brunson, who is also the executive director of the Mississippi State Medical Association. "He will be in the specialty of physicians, along with critical care physicians, that are in line to take care of the ones who have become most critically ill and need ventilator support."
For now, all Hughes can do is continue to work and wait. Mississippi only recently eclipsed 1,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus. Most models predict the state's caseload to peak in mid-April, though that could change as nearby cities like New Orleans experience their own surges.
Hughes said he continues to be amazed by how little is known about COVID-19. He recently dug up his notes about coronaviruses from his second year of medical school and found them to be eerily brief. This wasn't a major topic of study. It wasn't harped on.
"So many people think they know so much about what’s going on, but in the grand scheme of things, we really don’t know as much as we would like to know about the virus itself," Hughes said.
"The scariest thing is not knowing. … Not knowing what’s to be expected, and why it is the way it is."
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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