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Why Symetra Tour player decided to trade clubs for scrubs and join coronavirus fight

Sarah Hoffman/Symetra Tour

What makes somebody run into a burning building when everyone else is trying to escape?

Sarah Hoffman is not a firefighter, but she’s doing that kind of work, in a figurative sense, as a Symetra Tour player who decided to join the frontlines in this fight against the coronavirus pandemic. 

She put away her clubs and picked up her scrubs last week.

Hoffman went back to work as a nurse in Michigan, one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots. She returned with her tour on hold and her home state needing more nurses to help overwhelmed staff. She grew up in Saline, just outside Ann Arbor, but she was living in Atlanta while on tour.

When the pandemic erupted, Hoffman looked into getting a nurse’s license in Georgia but was ultimately drawn home.

“I decided I needed to come back to Michigan to help,” she said.

With Michigan trailing only New York and New Jersey in coronavirus-related deaths in the country, Hoffman is back to work at the University of Michigan’s medical center (Michigan Medicine). She’s working in the orthopedic trauma unit, where she began her nursing career in 2014, before she turned pro four years ago to play golf full-time. Though she has yet to treat a coronavirus patient, she is being trained to do so, should her unit be required to treat overflow COVID-19 patients, as it did earlier in the pandemic.

“There’s some uncertainty and anxiety dealing with a novel virus, and that can be challenging,” Hoffman said. “Yes, I worried about contracting COVID-19 myself, and I worried about passing that on to somebody else. I also worried about dealing with the acuity level of that kind of patient, a type of patient I had never cared for before.

Golf Central Update: Symetra Tour player Sarah Hoffman working as frontline nurse

Golf Central Update: Symetra Tour player Sarah Hoffman working as frontline nurse

“I had to overcome that, but that’s why I became a nurse. I wanted to help people in vulnerable states. I enjoy doing that for people.”

Yes, Hoffman said, a paycheck is nice with tour life on hold, but money didn’t lead her to nursing at Grand Valley State in Grand Rapids. She wasn’t just an All-American golfer at the Division II program. She was an Academic All-American all four years.

“Sarah has always been very passionate about nursing,” said Randy Hoffman, her father.

Sarah was in touch with nursing colleagues in Michigan when the pandemic began to hit the U.S.

“They said they could definitely use her back here,” Randy said. “I think that made it an easier decision for her.”

Sarah, 29, is the youngest of Randy and Jan Hoffman’s four children. Before returning to the University of Michigan’s medical center last week, Sarah moved in with a fellow nurse, to avoid bringing the virus home to her parents.

The elevated risks in nursing aren’t lost on Sarah or her parents.

“We prayed about it, we talked about it,” said Randy, a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch. “Sure, there are concerns, but she feels good about the protocols Michigan Medicine has in place. She believes she is prepared for this, and she really believes this is her calling, to do this.

“Who are we to say otherwise?”

Sarah Hoffman/Symetra Tour

Nursing and golf have long staged a tug of war in Sarah’s heart.

She won five times as a senior at Grand Valley State, but she remained there 15 months after completing her athletic eligibility, so she could finish the residential clinical requirements of her nursing degree. She barely touched a club that last year in the nursing program and upon graduating immediately took a job at Michigan Medicine, where she spent two years saving money to pursue her other passion, professional golf.

Even while on tour, Hoffman would come back and work at Michigan Medicine in the offseason.

So, what kind of person runs into a burning building?

What kind of person willingly confronts the kind of trauma Hoffman deals with in orthopedic surgical wards?

Those can be complex questions, but nursing is ultimately more about who you are than what you do. It’s more a calling than it is a job.

Notably, this is National Nurses Week.

It’s a week to celebrate who nurses really are, because there’s a little bit of Florence Nightingale in most all of them. The founder of modern nursing was described as a “ministering angel” by the British soldiers she treated in the Crimean War.

If you haven’t experienced the truth about nurses in that description, you’re fortunate to be so healthy. Still, you’ve probably witnessed it with a loved one’s bond to a nurse.

“You have to have a certain level of empathy to even decide to choose nursing as a profession,” Hoffman said. “It’s a career where you put other people first, where you put your patients first. It’s a career where there are going to be times that you are taking a patient to the bathroom when you have a full bladder yourself.”

Hoffman is working three 12-hour shifts as a “temp” nurse assisting busy staff. Michigan Medicine had 229 COVID-19 patients at its peak, with that count falling to 94 early this week.

“Right now, because of Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders, and because Michigan residents have been sticking to those orders, we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of cases,” Hoffman said.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be a spike when the state gradually begins to re-open its economy. She says the nursing staff’s coronavirus education is ongoing, with new information to be digested every day.

Sarah Hoffman/Symetra Tour

Hoffman was an excellent student at Saline High, but she wasn’t sure what degree she wanted to pursue after earning a golf scholarship to Grand Valley State.

“I wanted to do something to help people, and I loved science, so nursing seemed to be a good fit,” she said.

Hoffman still wasn’t completely sure about that path when she signed up for the nursing program, but that changed after she flew to Phoenix to be with her sister, Katie, to see the birth of her nephew.

“I was in the delivery room, and I watched how the nurse interacted with my sister,” Hoffman said. “It was Katie’s first time as a mom. She was there for hours, and I watched the nurse ease her fears. I saw the relationship develop.

“I don’t remember the doctor’s name anymore, but I still remember the nurse’s name, Claudia. I saw what she meant to my sister being at her bedside. I wanted to be that for others. The experience really solidified my decision to become a nurse. That was the moment I knew I made the right choice.”

Nursing wasn’t the easiest degree to pursue with college golf’s demands as both a fall and spring sport, but Hoffman said her coach, Rebecca Mailloux, helped her pursue both.

“It would have been impossible if it weren’t for my coach and the professors at Grand Valley State,” Hoffman said. “The requirements for nursing school were rigorous, and not very flexible.”

Clinical experience was required throughout Hoffman’s nursing studies, even before the more demanding clinical residential experiences her final year. Hoffman said Mailloux moved as much of the golf around those nursing requirements as she could.

“Our coach instilled in all of us that we really were student-athletes, not the other way around,” Hoffman said. “She made things happen for me.”

Mailloux admired the devotion Hoffman poured into her dual passions.

The demands were brutal.

“There’s only a handful of student-athletes who have ever successfully gone through Grand Valley’s nursing program,” Mailloux said. “The way it’s structured, there are strict clinical requirements. It’s basically a full-time job.”

When Hoffman completed her athletic eligibility, she considered immediately turning pro, but she wanted that nursing degree. She took a year off from golf to shadow licensed nurses in 12-hour hospital days.

“It was a huge feat for Sarah to overcome the challenges, to be both a successful golfer and get her nursing degree,” Mailloux said. “The level of dedication that required speaks volumes about who she is.

“It sums up who she is in a nutshell.”

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Upon graduation, Hoffman started working at Michigan Medicine’s orthopedic trauma unit. She worked there full-time for two years, with an eye still on a golf career. She lived at home while working, to save money so she could begin her pro career without having to rely on her parents or anyone else to support her.

“My parents had already sacrificed so much for me to play golf,” Hoffman said. “I didn’t want them, or anybody else, to have to pay for my dream.”

It wasn’t easy working as a full-time nurse while trying to keep her game sharp.

“I remember having a 12-hour night shift and then going straight from work to the golf course to play in the Michigan Amateur,” Hoffman said. “I teed off an hour after my shift ended.”

After turning pro in 2016, Hoffman began her second career by playing mini-tour events and state opens. She got a sponsor exemption into the LPGA’s Volvik Championship on her home course at Travis Pointe and at year’s end went to Q-School, where she earned limited Symetra Tour status for 2017. She earned full Symetra status for 2019, making 10 of 20 cuts to finish 92nd on the money list. She’s back on that tour again this year.

“I think I have the mental toughness it takes to play the LPGA,” Hoffman said. “I think the nursing degree helped give me a little better perspective to take to the course.

“Physically, the golf mechanics, I think I have a lot of work to do, but I’ve definitely seen improvement this past year.”

Hoffman’s plan is to quarantine for two weeks before the Symetra Tour’s planned resumption in July, and then get back to trying to play her way to the LPGA.

Amid this pandemic, Hoffman knows there’s growing uncertainty what anyone’s future holds, but she isn’t afraid to confront whatever the challenge may be.

She has her nurse’s scrubs to prove it.