Penguins’ COVID-19 tests have become part of the family
Penguins’ COVID-19 tests have become part of the family

Penguins’ COVID-19 tests have become part of the family

“I’m like, huh? Sid went me something? “said Runion Ackison with a laugh.

So she stopped at the arena to discover that the captain had autographed one of his sticks for her as a gift with a personal note that read: Thank you for taking care of us.

“It was crazy … I still can not even explain the feelings,” she said.

It was a well-deserved gesture for someone who has been a constant behind the scenes as the penguins have done their best to play hockey in the midst of a pandemic. Runion Ackison was part of the team’s bubble during the 2020-21 campaign, where he tested them every morning both at home and on the road and traveled with the group to all of their away games except one.

This season, Runion Ackison – nicknamed ‘G’ by players and staff – has continued to manage the team’s tests while in Pittsburgh – swiping them at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on training days and the PPG Paints Arena on game days – and handling tests for their family members.

“From day 1, when we met G, she’s done an excellent job for us,” said Penguin head coach Chris Stewart, who oversees the team’s compliance with the NHL’s COVID protocol. “It took so much work from my back. You can ask anyone in the organization, they all know G and they will all say that if we need a tester or a test, there has to go somewhere. She is there and she does not complain. One can not say enough about G. “

It has been important for Runion Ackison, 43, to bring what a friend calls “Big Momma Energy” to help everyone around her feel safe and taken care of in what can be scary and stressful times.

“I want to be a good COVID tester and I want them to feel comfortable with this person who has come in during this terrible pandemic that has thrown everything upside down,” said Runion Ackison. “From games to the way they travel, to how they can be in the locker room, everything has changed. Nothing is the same. And I just want to be a part that does not throw more change into it.”

Runion Ackison, who was born and raised in Virginia in a small town called Farmville, has been caring for people for a long time. She began her career as a nurse and worked for a year at a local hospital before deciding she wanted to do something different.

“My family is very military-oriented, so I enlisted in the Army when I was 21,” she said. “I went to DC, lived in Germany for four and a half years. I sent to Iraq for a year, and then came back to the state and lived in Kansas. Then we moved to Pittsburgh in 2008, so I’ve been here a while. . “

Runion Ackison, who lives in McCandless with his family, originally came here as a recruiter in the health care sector for the Army. When she had to retire for medical reasons, Runion became Ackison so her two daughters, Aeliana and Carissa, could continue to go to school in the North Allegheny district, which is a rarity for career-military families.

She also stayed because her brother Scott and her father Guy came to visit Pittsburgh and never traveled. When Runion Ackison’s mother died when she was 14, Guyanna was incredibly close to her father and called him her everything. When he had a stroke a few years ago and his health started to decline, Runion Ackison stayed at his home until he died in December 2019.

“After I tried to deal with my grief – and I still do not know I have – I was okay, I have to do something,” she said. “I have to go back to being a nurse and taking care of people and doing what I love.”

So Runion Ackison started looking for jobs but had a hard time finding anything as many places just weren’t employed at the time. But one night she was sitting at home when she received an email from a recruiter:

How would you like to be COVID tester for the NFL?

Within a week, Runion Ackison did COVID testing for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a BioReference employee for their 2020 season, and absolutely loved it. Runion Ackison has always been a big sports fan, and since she also loves having the garden, her running joke was that she would join the Boston Red Sox field team after retiring from nursing.

“Little did I know that those guys literally have PhDs in grass cultivation,” she said with a laugh. “But that’s what I always used to say. So now I’m kidding that okay, yeah, I’m not exactly working on the place’s crew – but this is still pretty impressive!”

When BioReference also began handling COVID testing for the penguins, her boss asked if she would take the lead. She said yes and Runion Ackison has been a part of the team ever since, which has been an incredible experience. Especially traveling with the Penguins last year, where she got the chance to fly on the team charter and stay in five-star hotels.

“I’m from a town called Farmville – most people in my town can’t fly privately!” she said with a laugh. “Never in a million years have I ever thought I would get to say I was flying on a charter jet with the Pittsburgh Penguins, of all teams.”

Runion Ackison would bring everything she needed on the road to administer the tests, essentially her entire lab – including a laptop and printer along with the PCRs – in a massive black case. As soon as the team arrived at their hotel, she would take all her supplies to the area she wanted to work out of – usually a conference or ballroom – and get it all ready for the next morning.

“That way, if someone happened to walk in at the same time as me – because they are not too late, they are usually early – I had everything ready and ready to go that night,” she said. “We would test in the morning and be done around lunch time, for example. We would have sent everything off to the laboratory. So at game time, if I were to go with them, I would drive with the taxi team on the last bus. I can not tell you where many personal hockey matches I had to go through last year. “

The only nerve-wracking part of it all for Runion Ackison – at least in the beginning – was the fear of saying the wrong thing, as she was not entirely sure of the team’s dynamics. But she quickly learned that the Penguins are a close-knit group, and everyone comes together, and it also helped that one of the Steelers had said something during their test that helped take the edge off what has definitely been a unique situation.

“One of the NFL players said to me, ‘This is about as intimate as it can get.’ lo. “I will never forget that. I love him for it.”

In addition, it really helped to be in a bubble together. The travel company was mostly limited to the ice rink and the hotel where they ate all their meals. And the more time Runion Ackison spent around the team, the more she became confident in being her gracious, personal self.

“I treat everyone the same way,” she said. “I do not care if you are anyone on the street or the President of the United States. If I take care of you, I will treat you exactly the same. We are all just normal people. And so I realized that they really enjoy it. They are not divas. “

It has been a little different this year as the NHL has moved back to a normal 82 games and there are not as many restrictions that allowed the Penguins to bring other testers in on the road. And even though they did a good job, they just were not the same as G.

“The guys are coming back and they’re like, man, you’re like the best swab we’ve ever had. I say, thank you! I appreciate that,” laughed Runion Ackison. “I love it. Sometimes I think, can I please start traveling again, because I do not want anyone else stroking you. I know it sounds very strange. But I’m like, I have to take care of my guys. . “

Runion Ackison took the team to Boston on their final road trip to coordinate their test, which came out of the All-Star break, just before the NHL’s revised protocol went into effect this week. Going forward, there will no longer be asymptomatic testing or testing of fully vaccinated close contacts, meaning testing will only continue on a limited “for a cause” basis in fully vaccinated players and staff who develop symptoms or require testing for cross-border travel.

But Runion Ackison will still be present every day if testing is needed, ready to step in and step up where necessary for the members of her extended family while her unique journey with the penguins continues.

“As a retired Army non-commissioned officer and nurse, I think we’re always looking for a job that will fill the void in the military,” she said. “Your family, made up of individuals who come from all walks of life but are just like you at the same time. Want to make a difference, want to live life to the fullest and with dreams beyond anything any of us have ever imagined “It’s been my time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They’re my family. Few people get jobs they would consider a ‘dream job’ once in their lives, much less twice.”


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