Renata Burigatto received a text message from her husband, NBA referee Mark Lindsay, 30 minutes after the scheduled tip-off of the game he was assigned to officiate between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder on March 11.
“I texted him, ‘Oh no, you OK? Did you get hurt?” Burigatto told USA TODAY Sports. “He replied, ‘No, they stopped the game and are going to test us for the coronavirus.’ ”
That began a stressful 12 hours for the couple, who were already operating under great stress because Burigatto is a frontline COVID-19 doctor specializing in acute in-patient care at Penn Medicine’s Chester County (Pennsylvania) Hospital.
“It was a very powerful night for us both on a personal and professional level,” Burigatto said. “I very busy in the hospital, working seven days in a row, 13 hours a day. Trying [to] balance that with trying to convey safety was challenging. We also have three young children at home. We were trying to keep them safe and consider whether we were going to keep them in school at that time. There was a little of uncertainty and there was a lot of anxiety about what choices we were going to make to keep all of safe.”
In their own way, Lindsay and Burigatto are at the heart of COVID-19 – Lindsay being on the court when the Thunder team doctor ran on the court to inform referees of the unfolding situation of a player testing positive and the idea that other players could be infected and Burigatto caring for patients on the East Coast.
“The anxiety of her or one of us becoming infected is very real,” Lindsay said. “That thought is never too far from my mind especially when she’s at the hospital. We experience that anxiety, isolation and uncertainty.”
Amid that, they have embraced comforting treasures, such as family time that may never happen like this again and the amazing work and dedication of health-care professionals.
Even before the NBA suspended its season, Burigatto had an idea what was coming. She knew the situation in China, has dealt with infectious diseases before and the hospital began prepping.
“Even as early as early February, I kept saying to Mark, ‘I want you to wear a mask. I want you to wear gloves. I need you washing your hands’ – the very basics we’ve tried to instill now in everybody,” Burigatto said. “At first, he said, 'I’m the only one on this airplane with a mask on,' and I said, “Good, leave it on.' "
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Getting over the awkwardness of being one of the only people at the time wearing a mask, Lindsay also social distanced as much as possible while traveling city to city. When he arrived in Oklahoma City, he politely declined to shake hands with one of his familiar ride-sharing drivers.
He and the rest of the crew (Pat Fraher, Ben Taylor) for the night tried to approach the game as normal as possible. They had their morning meeting and lunch together.
“We also had these discussions we never had before,” Lindsay said. “We made sure there was hand sanitizer at the scorer’s table and talked about keeping the basketball clean and ourselves clean.”
Then, moments before tip-off, Thunder vice president of human and player performance Donnie Strack ran onto the court and informed referees of the situation.
The game was delayed while awaiting word from NBA headquarters. A Jazz player (turns out it was Rudy Gobert) had tested positive, the game was postponed, and the NBA suspended its season. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell later tested positive, too.
“It was a surreal moment,” Lindsay said. “I’ll never forget the eyes of 20,000 people staring at you. We were moments from throwing the ball up. That was the defining moment where I knew this was so much bigger than basketball."
Along with the Jazz team and traveling party and some reporters, Lindsay, Fraher and Taylor also were tested. Lindsay got his negative result back the following day and booked the next flight home. Because of potential exposure to the virus, Lindsay self-isolated in a house owned by in-laws who relocated but hadn’t sold their home.
Lindsay has transformed into stay-at-home dad, whipping up omelets, avocado toast and PBJs which he calls “a perfect balance of peanut butter and jelly.” Also, he’s putting his elementary education degree to use, helping his children with remote learning.
“I kiddingly say I went from running around with 7-footers to a trio of 4-footers,” Lindsay said, adding, “if they just paid attention to my whistle like the 7-footers.
“But I know I will probably never have this extended time to be at home with my kids ever again. They’re at ages (5, 6, 7) where we can do so much together – read books, play board games, go for walks, play in the driveway. I’m grateful we can maximize our time together.”
To make sure he’s ready for a possible NBA return, Lindsay works out predawn to stay in game shape and also breaks down game film and has Zoom calls with co-workers.
Lindsay’s presence has eased the home responsibility on Burigatto who has treated only COVID-19 patients for the past seven weeks.
“I fall back on fundamentals we teach our children and live by: integrity, resilience, discipline and service, and I took an oath of service, and I take that oath very seriously,” she said. “I have chosen to leave my family each morning with the hope of being able to help somebody else and serve. That has a risk with comes with it. But it’s something that helps define who we are and what we’re meant to do in this life.”