SheHero is humbled to honor three truly remarkable women this week – Allison DeMajistre, Rebecca Kelly and Amy DuRoss Vega. Each began her career in Thoroughbred racing. All three now work in the medical field, tackling the sobering reality of the COVID-19 front lines every day.
It’s a kinship only they can fully comprehend. A club with dues paid – in spades, these days – by tireless dedication, tenacity and immeasurable strength of character. Most couldn’t meet the membership requirements; wouldn’t want to, in fact. The decision to pursue a career in nursing is a call to serve. The intersections of science, human emotion, life and death are established stops along their career paths. They are schooled, trained, seasoned. They are professionals.
Nothing, however, could prepare them for the global crisis they now face. As if the enemies they usually fight aren’t monstrous enough, something wicked this way comes. Make no mistake, this is deployment. And the battlefield is an overburdened health care system.
Respiratory therapist Amy DuRoss Vega worries about her friends, family members and colleagues treating COVID-19 patients. Well aware of the widespread shortage of personal protective equipment crippling her industry, she contacted former employers Graham and Anita Motion of Herringswell Stables and asked for help obtaining jockey goggles to donate to regional hospitals.
“I have family, cousins and such, who are working in New York taking care of COVID-19 patients, and it’s horrific. You don’t want to bring it home to your own family, but you don’t want to sacrifice the care that you’re giving your patient. It’s a very fine line you’re walking and very stressful.”
Amy worked for Herringswell at Fair Hill in 2001 after she retired from riding races. Raised about an hour west of Saratoga in New Hartford, N.Y., she began riding at age four.
“I actually wanted a monkey and my mother said no, so I said, ‘Ok then, I want a horse!’ ”
She competed in horse shows growing up and hoped to make that her profession. Because she’s small, strong and fearless, everyone who knew Amy encouraged her to consider becoming a jockey. A visit to the races at Saratoga one day opened her eyes to the prospect.
“I realized I was probably going to be the same height as the riders I saw there, and I thought that seemed like a fascinating, exciting job. So after graduating from high school I went to the track, learned to gallop and became a jockey.”
While married to fellow jockey Harry Vega, Amy rode at Garden State in New Jersey, Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and Woodbine in Canada. Active for six seasons, her biggest win came aboard Sister Dell in the $150,000 Garden State Budweiser Breeders’ Cup Handicap-G3 in 1994. She also topped the jockey standings at the track that same year.
An accident at Suffolk Downs precipitated the gradual end of her career, but it also taught her the powerful sense of family and community on the racetrack.
“I had a fall in a race at Suffolk and I broke my back. I had a body brace, a leg brace from my ankle to my thigh, and a cast from my foot to my knee. I wasn’t even aware of my circumstances yet and they were already donating jocks’ mounts, people were coming to visit me, people were looking out for me. And I didn’t expect that. I don’t know why, but I had just never thought about it. But all my coworkers, jockeys, trainers, exercise riders – they came and saw me in the hospital. They donated their money, their time.”
Amy did return briefly to race riding upon her recovery, but the decision to start a family was the impetus for finally hanging up her tack. She and Harry relocated to Delaware and had a daughter, Devin, followed by son Tyler a few years later.
“Two parents being followed around the track by an ambulance is probably not the most responsible thing. So I stopped riding races.”
The Vegas’ marriage ended while the children were still young, prompting Amy to chart a new professional course.
“While I was still galloping, I started back to school at Delaware Technical Community College. I had thought about what I could feasibly do. When I was hurt at the racetrack and saw my friends hurt, you’d watch the medical personnel, and it always interested me. I went to nursing school but then changed that because there were aspects of it that I knew I didn’t have the stomach for. So I went into respiratory therapy and I love it. I think it’s an amazing job . . . it keeps me active. It’s always changing and you’re always learning. And you’re giving back to people.”
Giving back was the primary motive when Amy approached Anita Motion about acquiring jockey goggles and face protection for local hospitals. She recognized the need and knew Anita had the contacts to get the job done.
The search for suppliers ensued, with Anita securing commitments from Kroop’s, the manufacturer of jockey goggles, and Sound FX Home Theater and Car Audio in Lewes, Del., for the protective face shields. Sound FX president Brian Layton and COO Andy Tavolario offered the shields created by their associate, Matt Schaeffer. Both manufacturers agreed to provide the products at a steep discount. A GoFundMe page was created, and members of the Herringswell team used their collective social media influence to spread the word.
“I, and I think most of my colleagues in every hospital, go to work, do our jobs, take care of the patients – that’s our central focus. We take for granted that everything we need is going to be there. The patient is the most important thing and is always our focus, so it’s really sad to see that focus taking such a wide berth from the patient to the availability of supplies. And the schedule has been going to work, coming home, going to work. It’s just been non-stop. It makes you crazy. Worrying about my family . . . all of that. My mom is 75 and lives in New York. The thought of her being alone is tragic. It haunts me, and I think that’s the biggest problem we all face.”
Allison DeMajistre relates. A nurse in the COVID-19 ICU unit at Penn Medicine’s Chester County Hospital in West Chester, Pa., she and her coworkers will receive some of the supplies purchased through the GoFundMe effort.
Allison’s story parallels Amy’s in several respects. At 15, she informed her parents of her plans to become a jockey. They vetoed the choice without hesitation. After graduating from Unionville (Pa.) High School, she attended the University of Miami.
“So I went to school and studied English, art, stuff that you can’t really use. And as soon as I got out, I just gravitated back toward horses and ended up galloping at Jonathan Sheppard’s. I started riding races at Delaware Park and then went on to Philadelphia Park with my bug, which I think I lost at Tampa Bay Downs. I married Erik Juvonen, and he wanted to train, so we started that whole thing together. He trained, I rode races. So we did the back and forth for a number of years.”
Allison rode professionally from 1996-99, with 34 wins from 430 starts. When asked about memorable mounts, her response was immediate.
“My very favorite horse was Friendly Goose. I lost my 10-pound bug and my 7-pound bug on her. She was this skinny little thing trained by Ernie Matthews at Philadelphia Park. One morning he said ‘I’m gonna put you on this horse.’ She was walking around the shed with this huge guy on her, and he just laughed.
“I would take her to the track and jog her backward, and she would stop and turn in, and she’d stand for like 20 minutes. I’d just let her stand there, and then she’d turn around and she’d start jogging again the wrong way. I’d spend an hour and a half on her sometimes. The first time I rode her in a race, she won. She’d be way, WAY far behind, and she’d get to the three-eighths pole and I’d say, ‘COME ON, GOOSE!’ and she would fly. She’d split horses, she was so much fun.”
Allison stopped riding races after having two children but continued to work with her husband in his training operation. They eventually divorced and sold their farm, and she joined the ranks of single motherhood.
“At that point I wasn’t doing anything. I was foxhunting, eventing a bit and just having fun with horses. So I went back to work galloping horses for (trainer) Chuck Lawrence at Fair Hill; I think that was in 2013. I did that for three/four years and at that point was also going to nursing school. I needed to do something, and I figured well, I’ll be a nurse. It was a few years of education, a good paying job, and really my thinking at the time was ‘I only have to work three days a week, so I can still ride – that would be great.’ Of course it developed into something else. I graduated from nursing school in 2015 and I haven’t been on a horse since then.”
Little wonder. Chester County Hospital has two ICUs, one of which is now designated COVID-19 specific. It’s now an all-hands-on-deck protocol, with staffing pooled from both ICUs as well as the step-down unit. Allison’s 12 1/2-hour shifts are spent caring for patients who are either on ventilators or have just come off them. By the time they transfer into Allison’s unit, their conditions are quite grave.
“The worst part about this is, people come in alone. When you’re a nurse, you see people dying. You deal with that because their families are there, everyone is gathered around them, everyone can talk to each other. They at least have some kind of closure. But now people drop their loved one off at the emergency room, and that’s the last time they see them. And all they can do is get updates from doctors or nurses. Some of these patients have never even been in a hospital; they don’t know what it’s like. And being alone, I think that’s the most tragic thing.”
The routine is a by now familiar grind. Work, home and nothing else. Allison changes into hospital-issued scrubs as soon as she arrives. She’s covered head-to-toe, and her mask remains in place for the duration of her shift. Upon her return home, she heads directly into the shower. She is diligent about the hygiene required to keep her own family safe and well.
“You go to work and you do the job. You put your head down and you’re working. But at the same time, part of your job as a nurse is dealing with people, talking to them and their families. You have to try to understand how they feel and how to get through it. The worst part with this is that it’s difficult to do your whole job a lot of the time.”
Allison expressed her own concerns, most especially for a few of the younger nurses on her team who are now pregnant. Not only are they risking exposure on a daily basis, they are also faced with their own impending hospital admissions to deliver their babies. In many cases – depending on local regulations – they too will be alone during their stays.
“I’m seeing the numbers and graphs that say well it’s just older people getting this. In the White House briefings, Dr. (Deborah) Birx has said if you’re this age, or have co-morbidities, or are this and that. But when you actually SEE IT . . . then it’s not just a number. And when it’s bad, it’s really ugly. It’s really scary.”
Rebecca Kelly is relatively new to her job at Select Specialty Hospital, a specialized care facility within St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, Del. After graduating from Delaware Technical Community College’s nursing program last May, she began work Aug. 26, 2019. She has been treating COVID-19 patients for the past month.
“We take the sickest of sick patients. It’s a critical care and we do ICU work there. These people have chronic and acute problems. Most have survived something that they wouldn’t have 10 years ago – like sepsis or multi-system breakdown.”
It’s an ideal fit for the former exercise rider and barn foreman whose extensive experience in Thoroughbred racing spans several decades.
Born in Fairfax, Va. but raised in Landenberg, Pa., she was introduced to the racetrack at a young age. Her aunt, Carol Rogers, was a trainer at Delaware Park. Uncle Chris Rogers, a jockey, is in the Canadian Hall of Fame. She learned to gallop racehorses by getting on her aunt’s trainees during summer breaks from school. Nevertheless, her father did his best to steer her away from the backside.
Becky plunged headlong into eventing as a teenager in the 1970s, working with some of the sport’s top names: Ralph Hill, Wash Bishop and – briefly – Olympic champion Bruce Davidson.
“When we had to retire my horse, I was 18 and some things had to happen. I was set to go to college. My sister was in grad school at NYU and I was trying to go up and be with her. She died in a car accident, which was horrible. So I was kind of thrown out in the world. The horses were gone, my sister was gone. So instead of school, I went to Delaware Park. I worked there full-time for two years. I had worked on and off at Jonathan Sheppard’s farm on weekends; not a lot, but a little bit here and there. So I had been around and had galloped.”
With “a bad car and little money,” she decided to go to New York and find work. She was hired by trainer Steve DiMauro and his son.
“That was kind of my home. We had a couple stakes horses, some allowance and claiming horses. They had about 80 horses in their combined barn. I wasn’t a licensed assistant trainer, but I did a lot of the assistant’s work. I travelled with the horses.”
There were stints with other trainers over the years, including Tom Skiffington, John Kimmel and Bill Mott, as well as plenty of opportunities as a freelance exercise rider. As such, Becky sat on some phenomenal horses.
In 1994 at Saratoga, Kimmel had a 2-year-old from whom much was expected. Named Thunder Gulch, he didn’t seem anxious to prove himself, so Kimmel had Becky try her hand.
“I LOVED him. I kept telling John ‘This is going to be your Derby horse!’ and he’d say ‘A Gulch winning the Derby?’ When we heard he was going to be sold, I told John that he and his father should buy him. He went to Wayne Lukas and won the Derby the next year. That has been a running joke with John ever since.”
She was aboard the legendary Cigar “a couple of times” while working for Mott. She developed a great friendship with Carl Nafzger and his assistant while at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. When Nafzger lost an exercise rider after shifting his operation to Keeneland in the Spring of 1990, he asked Becky to fill in on his top 3-year-old. That colt, Unbridled, won the 116th Kentucky Derby a few weeks later.
“I got hurt freelancing at Belmont in 1996 and stopped galloping. I broke six vertebrae in my neck and back. The horse I was breezing did a somersault when she changed her lead. It was weird though, she didn’t break down. I just got buried, and she came over on top of me. There was also a small fracture in my sternum and it bruised my heart. I was really jammed up for a while.”
Another fall several years later at Fair Hill resulted in a broken back and spinal fusion surgery. The suggestion by her physician to file for disability benefits was never a consideration. Grounded, she began working as a barn foreman. She was at Herringswell with Graham Motion for 9 ½ years and Tony Dutrow for a little over a year before deciding to enroll in nursing school.
It was a logical next step. Anyone who has worked with Becky acknowledges that she’s a detail-oriented achiever. She has a gear few people possess; she functions best in hyperdrive. That trait is serving her well in her new role.
“We specialize in mechanical ventilation weaning. Most of our patients have an airway. Some are intubated – most have a tracheotomy. Most come in on the ventilator, so they are full care patients. We get an array of problems there. The COVID is the first real communicable disease that we’re dealing with. We are a 40-bed hospital and over capacity right now so we are doubling up. We keep the COVID patients separated from the general population as most of our patients wouldn’t survive. Many of our patients have altered mental status because there are so many things out of sync with their bodies. A lot, we are just trying to keep alive. Some do leave, but very few get up and walk out. They’ll usually go to a step-down like a physical therapy rehab.”
That sounds like, and in fact is, a great deal to face after such a relatively short time on the job. Less than six months in, and she’s received pandemic protocol training. The 12 1/2-hour shifts frequently become 14 hours, with documentation typically stretching that into 16-18 hours.
“I’ve really tried to make myself well-rounded. I jumped in and tried to see where I could make myself be most effective and help the team. I didn’t want to just walk around in circles for a year. And I’ve gotten good direction; they’ve taken a liking to me from the beginning. I think my life experience has taken me a long way with this job.”
It was not surprising to learn that Becky aspires to be a charge nurse, a position that would definitely play to her organizational strengths. Currently enrolled in DelTech’s BSN program, she continues to attend classes with what free time she has available.
As both Allison and Amy can also attest, any free time at all is an almost unheard-of concept at this point. “When this is over” musings don’t cross their minds. Those are luxurious thoughts, and they don’t have the time. You hear it in all their voices. The slow intake of breath, the pause before speaking, sometimes struggling to find the right words. It’s a level of stress most of us could never fathom.
Regardless, it’s all part of who and what these women are. It’s that intangible quality . . . the innate sense of giving, of serving, of helping others. Given the choice, would they rethink their decisions? Would they choose another life?
Becky Kelly probably said it best.
“I’ve overcome a lot because I need to be a part of something. I can’t just be lost out in the world. The sense of helping people is huge . . . it’s huge.”
If you’d like to contribute to the PPE fundraising effort, please follow the link:
We encourage you to take a minute to learn more about the important contributions from the folks at Sound FX:
Our sincere thanks to Kroop’s, the leading manufacter of jockey goggles and protective eyewear: