1st Latina head team physician in MLB steers Dodgers through COVID-19 into a new season
Covering her bases and swinging for the fences: A conversation with UCLA Health's Marissa Vasquez, MD.
The pandemic was still in its early stages when Marissa Vasquez was named the primary care head team physician for the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 1, 2020 – the first Latina and woman of color to take on the role in the history of Major League Baseball, and the first woman physician in this role for the Dodgers franchise.
Early rumblings of the rapid spread of COVID-19 would set the tone for the year ahead, she recalls.
“Everything was happening very, very quickly during that time,” says Dr. Vasquez, MD, MBA, health sciences associate clinical professor in the department of family medicine and division of sports medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “I was just kind of thrown in there, rapid fire.”
For her first day on the job, Dr. Vasquez flew to Camelback Ranch, the spring training field for the Dodgers in Glendale, Ariz.
“I was just starting to assimilate to the role. I flew back about three or four days later and during that second visit, we were already talking about how COVID-19 could stall the season,” Dr. Vasquez says.
Three days later, on March 11, 2020, the National Basketball Association announced it was suspending the season, and the MLB followed suit.
Dr. Vasquez says she immediately started learning as much as she could to protect the team, their families, fans, her own family and herself. Along with collaborating with UCLA infectious disease consultants and other sports medicine head team physicians in Division 1 collegiate and professional levels, she had to monitor changes to pandemic restrictions in the counties of Los Angeles and Maricopa in Arizona.
“I had to do research on a daily basis to find out what the numbers were looking like, find reliable data sources, answer questions about travel, symptoms, social distancing and close contact, exposure. It was quite a learning journey.”
The newness and unpredictability of the pandemic, Dr. Vasquez says, left her feeling grateful for her decade’s worth of experience as a team physician, as well as her strong roots.
She grew up in a family of farm workers in the Imperial Valley. The youngest of four children, she says she was always encouraged by her family to do things “out of the ordinary” and strive for excellence.
Dr. Vasquez discovered her passion for sports medicine while attending the Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. She says she wanted to provide comprehensive care at the sideline for athletes of all different backgrounds, from the "weekend warrior" to those at professional and elite levels.
She returned to California to complete her residency at White Memorial Medical Center, and worked for more than a decade at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, where she eventually became the sports medicine fellowship director and division chief for sports medicine.
There, she and her colleagues made it a goal to train as many women as men in sports medicine. By the time she left in 2020, there was an even distribution of trainees. Women are expected to outnumber men trainees in the field at Kaiser this year.
Besides working as the head team physician for Division 3 athletes at Occidental College for more than 13 years, Dr. Vasquez in 2015 was appointed lead physician for the Special Olympics World Games, held at the UCLA venue. There, she acted as the medical captain for 7,000 athletes from 150 different countries.
She and friends from medical school became the founding board members of ElevateMeD, a nonprofit organization that partners with medical schools to provide financial support, mentorship and leadership development to future physicians.
Her advice to other women entering the field of sports medicine is to “make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.” After all, the pandemic threw a curve ball that no one in sports or medicine was expecting.
“You have to have your heart in medicine,” she says, “to help you get through the tough times.”
A new season
This past year, Dr. Vasquez says, her primary concern was keeping everyone safe with little information to go on.
“I was concerned about conserving personal protective equipment, keeping my family safe, keeping the team safe,” she says. “Now we have more information, which gives me peace of mind.”
The 2021 baseball season “is round two for us,” Dr. Vasquez says. “We’re going to use some of the lessons we learned to keep everyone safe and move forward.”
In comparison with last year’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season, this season will boast a full schedule of 162 games that started April 1. Dr. Vasquez will medically manage more than 80 home games in Los Angeles, ensuring players are healthy and are following the latest safety protocols.
A full year after the pandemic began, Los Angeles County met the “orange tier” of the coronavirus guidelines in early March, allowing the Dodgers to sell 33% of ballpark seats.
“I’m looking forward to a full season World Series,” she says, also noting that as the team’s doctor, she’s “never experienced Dodgers Stadium with fans in it.”
As the first Latina team physician in the MLB, Dr. Vasquez says it’s important for her and other women to empower those just starting out, and “help tip the scale” when it comes to diversifying the field of medicine. Though taking on the challenge of pushing forward during an unprecedented pandemic was not easy, she says, choosing this path for herself was simple.
“If you’re doing something you love,” she says, “that’s going to keep you grounded.”