by Karen Wonders, Ph.D., FACSM

I’ll be honest. I never saw it coming.

My husband did.

Even when we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic, he watches the news. He reads the newspapers – Every. Single. Morning.

Without fail.

So, when he called me on the morning of February 28, 2020 and told me he had a dream the night before that the Coronavirus had gotten so bad that hospitals were beyond capacity and Maple Tree wasn’t allowed on site to operate, I got a knot in the pit of my stomach.

Then I immediately told him that he was just being negative, it would never happen, and went on with my day.

I remember that day very vividly. When my husband called me, I was sitting in my car at our brand new UPMC site in Pittsburgh. We were finalizing details for our grand opening, which was to take place on March 2. After that, I drove across town to visit our location at the Buhl Club, which was thriving. I visited with the Director there, talked with some patients, took a few selfies, and left for my third meeting of the day at Slippery Rock University. There, we discussed our internship program and plans to launch a new Maple Tree University class in the fall. My fourth meeting that day was with a Professor at SRU about helping him with a research project he was working on. I was excited for Maple Tree to be a part of it and believed we would have enough patient data by the end of summer for his study. I drove home feeling a little tired, but I had gotten so used to the pace of things that I barely noticed. Mostly, I was excited. I had been working in the field of exercise oncology for 17 years, and never before had I seen such traction. Physicians were getting it. Insurance companies were even starting to take notice. Doors that once seemed dead-bolted shut were opening.

I truly believed that the sky was the limit.

On March 13, 2020, this all came to a crashing halt.

On this day, just as my husband had predicted, our hospital partners called us and told us that for the unknown future, we would not be able to serve our patients on-site.

Man, I hate it when my hubby is right….

Before I go on, I want to pause and say that my desire is to be sensitive to the millions of people around the world who have experienced the devastating effects of COVID. People have lost their lives. Businesses have been forced to close their doors. Every single person on this planet has been impacted in one way or another. This is just my part of what is a much, much larger story.

It sounds crazy and ironic to say it now, but my word for 2020 was “grit”. (Just like our patient in this picture!)

That’s right. On January 1, 2020, I wrote the word “GRIT” down in my planner as my word for the year.

Initially, I thought this word meant that 2020 would be my year to fight…to get scrappy. Something I’m used to. I had visions of tremendous growth for Maple Tree, which I honestly believed would come easily. I knew our merger with SunFlower Wellness would be completed in the first quarter of the year, and believed there was nothing but limitless potential ahead. Because of this, I thought that the “grit” would come into play in my personal life. In my never-ending quest to balance family and work. My desire to grow Maple Tree into a global organization, while working as a Full Professor, and being a wife and momma to 7 completely awesome kiddo’s. That takes grit. And a lot of it!

Never in a million years would I have thought that grit would refer to a global pandemic, hospitals closing their doors, teaching people how to exercise through a zoom session, homeschooling my kids, fighting over toilet paper, or leading live workouts on social media for the world to see (something, which sounds ridiculous now, but terrified me at the beginning of all this!).

But, thanks to lots and lots of prayers, the help of my amazing team, and yeah, a little grit, we got through it.

Turns out, 2020 wasn’t so bad after all!

That merger with Sun Flower Wellness introduced me to a new teammate – someone who is every bit as dedicated to the field of exercise oncology as I am. In such a short amount of time, she has grown from a respected colleague to a trusted friend and someone I couldn’t imagine running Maple Tree without!

This year also brought new amazing partnerships!! We now operate 43 clinical sites around the country! We are now partnered with organizations like Stanford, UCSF, Moffitt Cancer Center, and UPMC. This has propelled Maple Tree to the forefront of some amazing conversations with people who have the ability to truly impact a change. Our vision to change the way cancer is cared for in this country is being heard loud and clear – and change is COMING!

2020 taught us a new way of impacting the lives of the people we serve. Pre-March 13, I would have never proposed the idea of virtual exercise training to a hospital partner. There were just too many unknowns. Would the patients embrace the technology? Would it be safe? Would they get a good workout? What about home equipment – or a lack-there-of? Amazingly, we learned that virtual training is feasible, effective, safe, and was embraced by nearly every single one of our patients!! This is the one thing – the ONLY thing – that allowed us to keep our doors open during the pandemic. Not only that, but now new hospitals are embracing this idea for future partnerships!! This will give us an opportunity in the future to serve people who live in rural areas, where transportation and access is an issue.

Finally, it taught us a new way to do business. Pre-pandemic I was traveling every week. It was hard. I missed my family so much it hurt. I had a hard time keeping up with all the work I had to do because I was always in transit. I was exhausted, and continually beating myself up for being so exhausted. Looking back now, I realize that I could never have sustained that pace for very long. Something would have had to give. Now, thanks to everyone’s embrace of zoom meetings, I can have these very important meetings from the comfort of my own home. I can talk to people in three different states in the same day – without ever even leaving the front door! I can’t even describe the blessing this has been in my life. Now I can be present with my family, get my work done around the house (I often can be found folding laundry during a zoom call!), catch up on emails and desk work, and have very important meetings that I used to have to take a few days to travel for! It has truly changed my life for the better.

In the end, 2020 really was good to us. Maple Tree continued to grow, even in the middle of some really hard circumstances. We have a great team of people who are wholly committed to changing the face of cancer for the world – and I have no doubt we will get there!

I know that things won’t change over night now that 2021 is upon us, so it is my hope and prayer that you are able to find some blessings this unexpected year has brought to your own life, as well!