By Jesse Muñoz/COC Sports Information Director
Casey Wesley was just a freshman when she took the pitch as a member of the College of the Canyons women's soccer team for the final game of the 2011 regular season.
Wesley, who had joined the program earlier that year after playing at nearby Saugus High School, had emerged as a key member of the team and would eventually earn an All-Western State Conference (WSC) designation for her tireless efforts on COC's backline.
The stakes were high that day with Canyons gunning for its first conference title since the 2004 season. A win by the Cougars would give them the title outright. A loss or tie would mean having to share the title with Santa Monica College, which also happened to be that day's opponent.
With the game still scoreless in the 88th minute Canyons was awarded a free kick from about 25 yards outside the box.
"As I lined up over the ball to take the kick and send it back post to where my teammates were lined up. I changed my mind last second and went for goal myself to the front post," remembered Wesley. "The ball blew by the keeper to the left upper corner and we were up 1-0 with just a few minutes left to play."
COC was able to hang on from there, giving the program the first of what became a string of seven consecutive WSC championships from 2011 to 2017.
"That was such a great moment with all my teammates and coaches. It holds such a special place in my heart," added Wesley. "But the greatest part was the teammates I had the honor to play with."
Today, nearly nine years removed that memorable moment, Wesley is still a key part of a team, albeit with a different type of uniform and much higher stakes at play.
For the past two years she has worked as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at Foothill Presbyterian Hospital (FPH) in Glendora, where the same passion for her craft and love of being part of a team that she learned at COC have continued to serve her well.
"I truly love my job. There are so many things I enjoy about being a nurse," said Wesley. "I enjoy being part of a team, I enjoy learning every day, I enjoy the people I get to meet and care for and the stories they share with me."
Over the course of the last two months, following the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Wesley has developed an even deeper appreciation for her 'new' teammates and the work they are doing on the front lines each day.
"Being a nurse of only two years and working alongside nurses with 30 plus years of experience, our reactions were the same — no one had ever seen anything like this before," said Wesley. "But the nurses and staff I work with have been so positive, we've become even closer as we've all had to learn and adapt together."
Despite the sense of comradery that Wesley and her fellow nurses have formed, the struggles they have collectively faced alongside their patients have been continuous.
"Somedays in the ICU we don't have happy outcomes, but on those days I take comfort in knowing I was there for a patient as they passed when their family maybe couldn't be. Those days are dark and sad," said Wesley. "But the good days, the days when we extubate patients, get patients up with physical therapy or transferred out of the ICU, vastly outnumber the sad days. And that's what I live for and what keeps me going."
In fact, it is the positive impacts that nurses can have with their patients that originally inspired Wesley to pursue a career in the healthcare field.
Following her COC soccer career — which included another conference title in 2012, a second All-WSC selection and 2012 CCCAA All-SoCal Region honors — Wesley committed to play at Arkansas State University.
But it was during this seemingly exciting time that Wesley's interest in the profession was solidified, due in large part to the set of trying circumstances affecting her family.
In the midst of her sophomore season during the fall 2012 semester, Wesley's sister, Kellie, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. With her commitments to school and soccer, and the recruitment process in full swing, Wesley was unable to go with Kellie to her weekly chemotherapy appointments.
"I kept hearing my sister talk about her amazing nurse, Joyce, that always took such great care of her," Wesley said. "Once fall semester ended I was finally able to accompany my sister to her treatments during winter break. It was at that time that the passion and desire to become a nurse was lit inside me."
Wesley graduated from COC in spring 2013 with an associate degree in liberal arts & sciences. That same spring Kellie finished up her chemo treatments. For her last session the then 22-year-old Kellie walked into the oncology unit with a well-deserved gift in hand for Joyce.
"Joyce was patient, kind and considerate. She would sit with my sister during treatments, talk to her, sing to her, anything she could do to make the time pass and make her feel just a little better," said Wesley. "I recall being in such admiration of Joyce and the role she played not only for my sister but for me and my parents. She gave us a peace of mind and made us laugh at a time when that all seemed impossible.
"Being a witness to the relationship that was formed between my sister and her oncology nurse made me realize I wanted to do the same," added Wesley. "I wanted to be there for people during the dark and scary times, to aid them in navigating the unknown and help them feel reassured and at peace."
Little did Wesley know that she would soon be doing just that as her community, and indeed the world, grappled with the coronavirus pandemic.
After COC, Wesley attended Arkansas State for two semesters before eventually transferring to play her senior season at Newberry College in South Carolina. She graduated from Newberry in 2015 after earning a bachelor's degree in human health and biology.
From there, Wesley completed the nursing program at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona and went on to complete the pre-licensure portion of the school's Entry Level Master's Program (MSN-E) in December 2017, latter passing her National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exams in February 2018.
A few months later Wesley was hired at FBH as a new grad registered nurse. But she had no idea that her new position would soon place her on the front lines of an unprecedented health crisis.
"I can honestly say I never anticipated being a part of the fight against a global pandemic," said Wesley. "Maybe that was naive of me to never consider, but it has really shown me that we can all persevere."
Over the past couple of months Wesley's shifts have alternated between treating both COVID and non-COVID patients, with time spent in the hospital's ICU, emergency room and gastrointestinal lab. As one would expect, each day has brought a different set of challenges, often paired with a new set of patients to get to know and care for that shift.
"It's definitely been an emotional experience," said Wesley. "Before the pandemic I had never experienced multiple patients from the same family being admitted to our hospital let alone multiple family members together in the ICU.
"It takes an emotional toll," she added. "It's impossible to not relate and imagine 'what if this was my grandparents? Or me and my sister?'"
In between shifts at the hospital Wesley has been forced to take extra quarantine precautions in order to protect her family and friends, and long term boyfriend Brandon Lotts, who she met while they were both collegiate soccer players at COC.
"Sheltering in place and not being able to see family and friends has been hard, just like it has been for everyone," said Wesley, who will need to continue following such precautions even as much of the region begins to re-open and shelter in place orders are relaxed.
But the experience has not been without some personal rewards.
"The most rewarding part of all of this has been seeing the strength in the men and women I work with every day and being witness to the patients that were so sick, fighting back and getting healthy again, and returning home to their loved ones.
"Also, the overwhelming support received from friends, family and our community, the strength of the people I work with every day, the power of people coming together for one cause, and the impact we are capable of making as a society with a united front, have all been inspiring," she added.
"This experience has made me appreciate my role as an RN more than I already did. I am honored to be a nurse and be a part of the healing process for those in need during this unprecedented time."
Wesley is currently completing the last portion of her educational program at Western University and is on track to soon graduate with a Master of Science in nursing.
Though no longer actively playing soccer, Wesley is no doubt still part of a winning team!
"I've been mentored by great coaches and great nurses all along the way," said Wesley, adding that she owes a tremendous debt to COC women's soccer head coach Justin Lundin and COC kinesiology & physical education faculty member Robert dos Remedios who both prepared and encouraged her to continue playing at the four-year level.
"I'm beyond grateful for all the nurses that have taught me so much, helped me through some tough days, and played a part in my development as an ICU nurse. Just like on the pitch, we win together and we lose together," she said.
"I miss my soccer days frequently, but I am so appreciative to be part of a team where our wins in the ICU are even bigger than the conference championships I reminisce about so often."
Stay up to date on all this season's action by following the College of the Canyons Athletic department on social media at @COCathletics on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.