From the Baseline to the Front Line: Alex Aksanov
The COVID-19 pandemic has produced much uncertainty across the country, but one thing it has unequivocally reaffirmed is our respect and adoration for the many officials and health care providers dedicating their lives to keeping others safe. In our ongoing series From the Baseline to the Front Line, we will honor members of the USTA Eastern community who also happen to belong to that heroic group. Here, we speak with Alex Aksanov, a former top-ranked Eastern junior who went on to play Division I tennis at the University of Maryland in College Park. Aksanov is now a physical therapist who has been working with COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What are some of your specific responsibilities as a physical therapist in supporting COVID-19 patients?
Aksanov: It all depends on the severity of the symptoms. If the patients are in the acute stage, we help them to mobilize, to move, in hopes of preventing them from needing a ventilator. [If the patients do end up on a ventilator], we provide treatments—such as breathing techniques, positioning and chest physical therapy—to help increase breathing capacity and to help them to wean off the ventilators. And once they are more medically stable, we work on ambulation and functional activities, constantly monitoring their oxygen levels as they prepare to be discharged.
What has your personal experience been like on the front lines of this pandemic?
Aksanov: When the pandemic started, we didn’t know the severity, the impact it was going to have, and we had to learn quickly. I was actually one of the first health care workers who had exposed contact to a confirmed COVID-19 patient. So I was told to self-quarantine for a period of time.
Wow. What was that like? What ran through your mind when you learned you’d been exposed, especially so early on in the crisis?
Aksanov: Initially, I was quite worried. You go through a lot of different emotions—there are so many unknowns with this virus. But once I was in self-quarantine, I took care of myself. I continued performing proper hygiene. I controlled my diet, sleep and made movement a priority. Thankfully I didn’t experience any symptoms or complications. I was optimistic, and eventually I was medically cleared to return to work.
New York was undoubtedly hit the hardest by the pandemic, but there is a sense that the city is—for now—past the worst of it. Have you felt that trajectory over the last few months?
Aksanov: At the onset it was very difficult, seeing so many of my patients intubated, on ventilators, not surviving. But over the weeks the situation has slowly started to improve. The entire hospital staff on the front lines—doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, rehab therapists, technicians, patient transportation, maintenance staff—have all come together. They have all been working very hard to ensure the safety of each patient. And more patients have been recovering. We’re more optimistic. Every time a patient gets discharged, [the hospital plays] the Bob Marley song “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”.
Before your career in the health care profession, you played tennis competitively. When did you first pick up a racquet?
Aksanov: I learned the sport at a young age from my father, who was a top-ranked player in the former Soviet Union. He’s still my idol. I was fortunate to compete at a high level as a junior in the Eastern section, and I earned a tennis scholarship [to the University of Maryland at College Park]. Tennis actually led me to become a physical therapist.
Aksanov: Unfortunately I had a number of injuries when I played. That really propelled me into the medical profession. I wanted to make a difference and assist other people in their recoveries so that they could perform at the level they performed before they were injured. [Now] being in a hospital, I work with some of the sickest patients. It’s rewarding to see how getting these patients up and moving can make such a big impact in their lives.
Do you still find time to get on the court?
Aksanov: I do. I play recreationally and I sometimes teach, just to give back to the community and to help those who are coming up. Tennis is one of the few sports you can play your entire life—it’s truly a game for a lifetime.