Posted by: Shauna Farnell
Infection Preventionist Caitlyn Ngam can’t wait to compete in her kayak again at the GoPro Mountain Games
After all that the last few months have delivered, Caitlyn Ngam has a fresh appreciation for this year’s GoPro Mountain Games. For everyone, the event marks the beginning of brighter days beyond the darkness of COVID-19, but as a an Infection Preventionist at Vail Health, Ngam played a unique role amid the darkness, dedicating countless hours to finding and turning on light switches.
“It’s been a lot of long days,” Ngam says. “The Mountain Games will feel like a nice, back-to-normal thing, a way to revisit my life before COVID. It’s going to be great.”
Since January of last year, the pandemic has run Ngam’s life, beginning with the initial planning phases after seeing the virus wreak havoc overseas to managing its local onslaught beginning last March. She played an instrumental role ensuring that the Vail hospital never ran out of supplies and that all measures aligned with ever-changing government mandates and recommendations. She even spearheaded a pandemic map in which all virus care sites were – appropriate for a world-class ski town like Vail – ranked on a scale from green to double black.
Managing the COVID chaos
Throughout the last year-plus of what she describes as “lightly managed chaos,” Vail’s virus management system became a beacon of success. The hospital was never overflowing with COVID patients, supplies never ran out and the community vaccination rate is on the rise, with more than 60% of the community vaccinated as of mid-May. The process has been an emotional rollercoaster for Ngam, full of 12-hour days and working weekends.
“The hardest day I had was when one co-worker got COVID pretty early,” Ngam recalls. “She had to be intubated and was transferred to Denver. It was scary. That was like, here we go. It’s real.”
Said co-worker – Vail Health’s lead respiratory therapist, Julie Scales – pulled through after seven days on a ventilator in Denver. She is now fully recovered and was the first person in Vail to receive a COVID vaccine in December. This marked a true turning point for all local healthcare workers, including Ngam, although her role remained demanding.
“The toughest part of the vaccine rollout was at the beginning,” she says. “We were triaging who gets it first, who deserves it more and at a hospital like this – 1,800 people work here – we had to figure out where we were going to do it.”
According to Ngam, Vail Health staff vaccination rates are higher than that of nearly any healthcare facility in Colorado.
“Over 90% of Vail Health staff is vaccinated. We’re really, really excited about that,” she says. “I’ve talked to Infection Preventionists at other hospitals and rarely is the percentage of vaccinated staff more than 80. In some places, it’s around 60.”
This brings Ngam to a much-deserved breather and to a point where she can start balancing her life again.
Getting back to paddling
As an avid kayaker and outdoor enthusiast, Ngam says the Mountain Games actually played a crucial part in her decision to move to Vail in 2016 after finishing graduate school in Wisconsin.
“I saw there was a job available here and figured if a place is cool enough to have an event like this, it’s absolutely where I want to use my degree. It’s definitely a draw,” she said.
Ngam was so excited to participate in the Mountain Games that she signed up for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge – in which a handful of athletes, including many pros – compete in several cross-discipline events throughout the Mountain Games.
“It was the first year and a friend of mine came into town,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Yo, we should enter the Ultimate Mountain Challenge together.’ We signed up for all the events.”
Her friend bailed, but Ngam was hooked.
“There was always a sense of accomplishment for the Ultimate Mountain Challenge. I just like being able to finish everything,” she says. “Somebody has to be last place and I got off my butt to do it. We are active, enthusiastic community members, but I’m not here Strava-ing marathons.”
Ngam proceeded to compete in the UMC every year through 2019. In 2018, she actually took fifth, finishing on the heels of the top four pros. While the UMC is not happening this time around, Ngam is signed up for three events – the GMC Down River Kayak Sprint, the all-new Pacifico Gore IV Kayak Challenge and the Nature Valley Aprés 5K run.
More than ready for the 2021 Mountain Games
“I always do the 5K cause I’m always like, how hard is it to do a 5K? I’ll do one 1-mile or 2-mile run to prepare and then I’ll go for the Mountain Games 5K and it’s super hard,” she says. “Some of it is straight uphill. There are a few power hike sections. I always get done and I’m like, I should run more.”
Nonetheless, the front-line health worker is more excited about this Mountain Games than ever before.
“The Mountain Games is always like a summer kickoff, but now it’s a summer kickoff after an exceptionally crappy year and half,” she says. “Emotionally, it’s been blizzarding for a long time. It’s like we’ve had 15 months of April where you can’t kayak because the river is too low and you can’t ski because the snow is gone. Mountain Games will be especially fun because it will be the first big thing to happen after all of this. It will be a celebration of … I don’t want to say a post-COVID era, but maybe a pandemic wind down. It’s exciting to have it back.”
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