Former NCAA champ Reka Zsilinszka brings a tennis mentality to the ER

Former NCAA champ Reka Zsilinszka brings a tennis mentality to the ER

"It's kind of like a tennis match: if you come out slow, then you're not going to do well and will start down 0-3 right away," says the former Duke player.

The 2020 NCAA tennis championships would have been decided this week, but rather than competing for national titles, college players are sitting at home, finishing classes online and graduating via Zoom. While 2009 NCAA champion Reka Zsilinszka can understand their pain, she's been busy treating hoards of coronavirus patients in the emergency room. 

"The ER is generalized chaos always, so that hasn't changed at all. We adapted fairly well," Zsilinskza, an ER doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, tells "Now it's just very uniform, it's the same problem: coronavirus respiratory failures."

Eleven years ago, Zsilinszka helped Duke win the team NCAA Championships during her sophomore season. A two-time All-American, she was named the 2009 NCAA tournament MVP and was the second Duke player in history to win over 40 matches in a season.

Zsilinszka (second from right) helped Duke win its first tennis NCAA Championship.

In the nine years since her collegiate career, Zsilinszka's focus shifted from tennis to medicine—while still playing recreationally on the side and marrying a fellow player.

"When I started playing tennis and I had little injuries, I would go see orthopedic doctors and I thought they were really cool," she says. "I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon pretty early on when I was 12 or 13. Then I switched to emergency medicine." 

The 30-year-old earned her bachelor's and medical degrees from Duke and will finish residency next month at Penn. Next she'll become an attending physician at Southern California Permanente Medical Group in San Diego. 

Zsilinszka during a shift at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

July was meant to mark Zsilinszka's extended honeymoon in Australia and Asia, but for now that's off the table. Instead she and her peers are fighting a daunting and unexpected opponent: COVID-19.

"The most difficult part has been the patient interaction," she says. "As you can imagine there are no visitors allowed and these patients are coming in really sick, and totally alone. We're wearing head-to-toe gear so we look terrifying to patients. That takes are really hard job already and makes it a thousand times harder."


These are the faces our patients see. Strangers in goggles ????, multiple masks ????, face shields ????, hats ???? . I often see fear in my patient’s eyes when I walk into the room dressed in so much gear. It makes your tone of voice and body language so much more important in developing rapport and empathy...but it makes our job so difficult in highly sensitive conversations. It somehow feels so impersonal with all the gear but yet it is our new normal. Let’s hope that the old adage is true - that the eyes are windows to the soul. Because that’s often all our we can see of each other nowadays. Stay strong and healthy and make ???? ???? contact!! #emergencymedicine #covid19 #medicine #coronavirus #hospital #healthcareworkers #medicalschool #healthcare #doctor #emergency #nurse #nursing #residency #paramedic #healthcareheroes #emergencyroom #physician #health #docsofinsta #medical #medstudent #respiratorytherapist #ventilator #criticalcare #education #medical #compassion #healing #wegotyou #savinglives #frontlineworkers

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In the ER, Zsilinszka is relying on the discipline, work ethic and focus she's developed after decades of experience spent training on court and studying in school.

"I think every athlete says this: no matter what you do, being a high-level athlete makes you better at everything whether you go into law, business or medicine," she says. "In medicine, there's early hours, long shifts and it's super team-based.

"A lot of times you just have to just put your head down and grind it out, do the work and not complain."

Zsilinszka knows how to prep for a big match, or a shift, so that she can perform at her best, and has willingly sacrificed basics like sleep, time off and a social life for a greater goal. The difference is that the goal switched from winning matches to saving lives. 

"When I think it's going to be a busy shift, I'll walk to work and I'll put a pump-up playlist on and try to get in the right mindset," she says. "You really have to be 'on' from the first moment, and really sharp. It's kind of like a tennis match: if you come out slow, then you're not going to do well, and will start down 0-3 right away."


Day off, not a human in sight, working on some work-life balance. For me it’s always been exercise and the outdoors: whether it’s hopping on my bike, doing a floor or core workout, going for a run, or in better times going out for a nice grind hit. Missed it! Take care of yourselves people. ❤️ ???? ???? #tennis #tennisgirl #athlete #forehand #tenniscourt #sport #worklifebalance #wellness #fitness #doctor #physician #emergencymedicine #emergencyroom #emergencyphysician #philadelphia #publicpark #exercise #sunset #sunsetphotography #photography #photooftheday #socialdistancing #isolation #balance #citylife #workout #motivation #lululemon #racket #collegeathlete

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Though the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much ongoing, there has been some good news: public courts are opening, at least in some parts of the world. Zsilinszka will return to nurturing her life's first passion as a way to balance out her hectic work life in the emergency room. 

"There's a lot of fear. I tell patients they have coronavirus and they break down because they think it's terminal disease," she says. "Everything they hear on the news is really negative.

"People are super scared and, although it's very serious, if you follow the appropriate protocol: (a) it's still possible to not transmit it, and (b), it's a survivable disease."