From the back line to front line, Amherst Regional graduate and former soccer pro Robbie Russell at home in the ER

  • Dr. Robert Isaac Oleen Russell is a first-year resident in the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. Known as Robbie Russell during his soccer career, the 1997 Amherst Regional graduate has moved from the back line in soccer to the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. COURTESY ROBBIE RUSSELL

  • Chivas USA's midfielder Jesus Padilla (10) fights for control of the ball with Real Salt Lake's defender Robbie Russell (3), of Ghana in the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Alex Gallardo—AP

  • Chivas USA's midfielder Jesus Padilla, left, defends Real Salt Lake's defender Robbie Russell of Ghana from the ball in the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Alex Gallardo—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's defender Robbie Russell of Ghana (3) gets pressure from Chivas USA's midfielder Jesus Padilla (10) in the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Alex Gallardo—AP

  • New York Red Bulls' Mehdi Ballouchy (10) battles Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell for the ball during the first half of a MLS soccer match at Red Bull Arena in Harrison , N.J., Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz) Rich Schultz—AP

  • Philadelphia Union's Keon Daniel (17) collides with Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell in the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, June 11, 2011, in Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Michael Perez) Michael Perez—AP

  • Houston Dynamo midfielder Corey Ashe (26) kicks the ball away from Real Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell (3) during the second half of a Major League Soccer game at Robertson Stadium in Houston, Texas, Saturday Aug. 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider) Patric Schneider—AP

  • Real Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell (3) slide tackles Seattle Sounders midfielder Alvaro Fernandez (15) during the first half of their playoff MLS soccer match, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Jim Urquhart) Jim Urquhart—AP

  • Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, right, dives in as Seattle Sounders' Jhon Kennedy Hurtado (34) attempts a shot around the defense of Real Salt Lake's Chris Schuler (28) and Robbie Russell, left, in the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren—AP

  • Real Salt Lake players mob Robbie Russell as they celebrate after Russell made a penalty kick to give Real Salt Lake a win over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup championship soccer match, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman, second from right, yells at teammate Robbie Russell, second from left, as Russell walks to attempt a penalty kick during an overtime shootout against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup championship soccer match, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. Russell made his kick, giving Real Salt Lake the win over the Galaxy. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Ted S. Warren—AP

  • Real Salt Lake defender/midfielder Robbie Russell (3), of Ghana, right, tackles the ball away from Los Angeles Galaxy forward/midfielder Landon Donovan (10) during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, April 17, 2010, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Alex Gallardo—AP

  • Colorado Rapids midfielder Mehdi Ballouchy, right fights for control of the ball against Real Salt Lake defender Robbie Russell, left, during the first half of their MLS soccer game Saturday, June 6, 2009 in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson) STEVE C WILSON—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell, left, takes the ball from Columbus Crew's Emmanuel Ekpo in the second half of an MLS soccer match in Sandy, Utah, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. Real Salt Lake defeated the crew 1-0. (AP Photo/George Frey) George Frey—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell celebrates a win over the Columbus Crew after an MLS soccer match in Sandy, Utah, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. Real Salt Lake won 1-0. (AP Photo/George Frey) George Frey—AP

  • Columbus Crew's Emmanuel Ekpo, right, and Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell chase a loose ball during the first half of an Eastern Conference MLS soccer playoff game Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete) Jay LaPrete—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell kneels on the pitch as Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando runs to him after Russell made the winning kick in a penalty kick shootout to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup championship soccer match, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell kneels on the pitch after he made the winning kick in a penalty kick shootout to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup championship soccer match, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell, left, is greeted by goalkeeper Nick Rimando, center, and Robbie Findley, right, after Russell made the winning kick in a penalty kick shootout to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup championship soccer match, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson—AP

  • Real Salt Lake defender/midfielder Robbie Russell (3), of Ghana, heads the ball away from Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Mike Magee, left, during the first half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, April 17, 2010, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo) Alex Gallardo—AP

  • Real Salt Lake's Robbie Russell after the winning kick against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS Cup soccer match Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. Real Salt Lake won the championship on a penalty kick shootout. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson) Elaine Thompson—AP

Sports Editor
Published: 6/1/2020 4:03:51 PM

For 13 years, Robbie Russell was used to making split-second decisions.

The 1997 Amherst Regional graduate played defense for several professional soccer teams, overseas and at home in Major League Soccer.

Standing on the back line, he could see plays develop in front of him, make the proper adjustments and react instantly when an opponent made his move.

Russell made his final move on the field in 2013, retiring from professional soccer. But while Russell left the back line, he put himself in position to where now he is on the front line as Dr. Robert Isaac Oleen Russell, MD.

Russell is a first-year resident in the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. The 40-year-old spends most of his time in the emergency room with his focus being emergency medicine. It’s a place he’s very familiar with.

“They are very team-based because you are working in small units,” Russell said. “It’s you, your nurses, its techs, and a lot of the procedures, like traumas, are very much a team unit working in unison.”

Russell was in his Charlottesville apartment Sunday, preparing for a 12-hour shift that started at 1 p.m. He had Saturday off after working six straight days.

He has seen the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic up close, personally and professionally. In the ER he is making decisions to save lives, while at home he is making FaceTime a priority. Russell hasn’t seen his family physically in 2½ months. His wife, Tiana, and children, Leo, 7, and Lucas, 5, live in Falls Church, a 2½-hour drive up the coast. The family is expecting another boy any day now.

“That is an emotional struggle that is constant ... I am trying to pile on shifts right now so that I can be back for the birth, but because I’m considered a high risk for the virus, because I am an emergency medicine doctor, I have to take a test before I am even allowed in the hospital where my wife is,” Russell said. “Once I take that test I’ll still have to self-isolate myself from the entire family and I won’t be able to touch the baby for seven days.”

When Russell enrolled at Duke, he originally planned on pre-med. One week and one failed calculus exam later, he switched majors. Being a Division I athlete and a pre-med student didn’t mesh well together, so Russell finished college with a degree in sociology and a minor in statistics.

He assumed he would have a short soccer career. The Los Angeles Galaxy selected him in the MLS draft, but Russell changed course and went overseas. From 2000-2008 he played for teams in Iceland, Norway and Denmark.

In 2005, he suffered a knee injury playing for Rosenborg in the Norwegian Premier League. It was during the proceeding four surgeries and year-plus recovery when he started to think about his post-soccer future.

At the time he was living with Tiana, who was teaching and consulting on American law. Her father, an emergency medicine physician, brought up Russell’s future.

“He was kind of giving me those talks, like, ‘what’s your real job going to be’ type of situation. I kind of jokingly said to him, ‘Well, how about medicine? I can do that,’” Russell said. “I thought he was going to laugh at me, like, ‘OK, what are you really going to do?’ He was like what do we need to do to get this done.”

Russell and Tiana began to plot their return to the states, but Russell wasn’t finished with soccer. He landed in Utah playing for Real Salt Lake in 2008. The following year, Russell scored the game-winning goal in the seventh round of a penalty kick shootout in the MLS Cup. The goal gave Real Salt Lake their first MLS championship.

In 2012, he moved on to D.C. United and joined Tiana, who had already been in the area practicing law. With D.C. looking to get younger, Russell started applying to medical school.

In May 2013 Russell was accepted into Georgetown University’s Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Medical Certificate Program. He announced his retirement two weeks later, putting a close to his soccer career.

“That was a blessing,” said Russell, who was an All-American for the Hurricanes. “I got to play soccer for a career, which was fantastic.”

The following month Russell stepped back into the classroom for the first time since leaving Duke in 2001. Much had changed in the classroom in his time away.

“I had to revamp how I get all my materials,” Russell said. “I’m one of those old school studiers where I have a book open and a highlighter in my hand. That doesn’t really work anymore. You can’t walk around school with 50 pounds of books on your back. Everything is in your iPad. All the exams are digital. It’s very different.”

Russell spent 15 months at Georgetown, retaking all the math and sciences courses from Duke that were no longer valid for med school. He then spent four years in medical school at George Washington. He’s now in the first year of a three-year program at UVA.

Going back to school was a challenge for Russell and his wife, who added two children to the mix during the time. Balancing home and school has never quite been achieved, but the pair has received plenty of support from family to get by.

“Sometimes my scales are tipped one way and sometimes my scales are tipped the other way, and I’m just hoping the tipping back and forth eventually evens out,” Russell said. “I do feel as if most of it has been, at some point, somewhat out of balance and the only way to kind of get through that is because you have other people around you who are helping you tip the scales one way or the other. Nobody does it on their own and I am the quintessential example of someone who is riding on other peoples’ shoulders.”

With his athletic background, Russell feels at home in the ER. The early wave of coronavirus was challenging because hospitals were working with little information, Russell said. With more information, more can be done.

“The more data that comes in the more adjustments we are able to make,” Russell said. “That was the biggest learning curve, was the idea that you didn’t want to react reactively, you wanted to be more proactive.”

Amherst remains close to Russell’s heart, even though a fraction of his life took place there. Russell was born in Ghana. His mother, Fanny, is Ghanaian. His father, Robert, is American. His parents met when his father was working in the Peace Corps. Through his father’s work with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Russell spent time in Ghana, Amherst, D.C. and Sri Lanka. After four years in Sri Lanka, Russell’s parents divorced and he moved with his mother back to Amherst.

Russell remembers his time in western Mass. as a whirlwind. He played for an offseason soccer team based in Boston during his junior and senior year. After school, he’d commute to eastern Mass. for practice, then travel on weekends for games.

It’s been a couple years since he’s been back, but his mother and sister are still in the area. They live in Belchertown, where his sister has her cookie business, Auntie Elsie’s.

He stays in contact electronically, like he does with his family. He doesn’t like that he has to see his family through a screen, but it’s better than nothing. It’s advice a fellow doctor gave him when dealing with COVID patients.

“One of our colleagues said the most important thing you can do before you’re intubating this person, grab an iPad and let them call family because it may be the last time they say goodbye or speak to them,” Russell said. “That wasn’t something we were thinking of. We always think of we’re doing this to help this person get better. We weren’t thinking of, well, we’re doing this now, but there is a real possibility we’ll never get this person off this vent again.

“It’s the little things,” he added. “The idea that right now with family, when you are trapped away from everyone and you’re not able to see them face to face, something is better than nothing.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.




Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy