The two halves of Ali Downey’s life couldn’t be more different.
Three days a week, for shifts that can carry past 12½ hours “if somebody’s a little bit more sick or you get somebody from the emergency room or if they’re crashing,” she’s a critical care nurse at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley. It’s a calling she recognized as a child, when she’d comfort other kids or bring wounded animals to her Huntington Beach home to nurture them back to health. “It’s just been in me, this feeling, my entire life,” she said.
During hockey season, when her work schedule permits, she’s a member of the Ducks’ Power Players squad, a 16-woman group that brings energy to Honda Center on game nights and represents the team at promotional events. Some Power Players are part of the crew that clears debris and snow and maintains the ice during stoppages in play, a role Downey hopes to add next season. Given that she basically relearned how to skate two weeks before she aced her audition last summer, there’s every reason to believe she will succeed there too.
Her two dramatically different jobs form a satisfying whole for Downey, whose rookie year on the ice was cut short when the NHL paused the season March 12 because of the coronavirus outbreak. Interacting with fans and leading cheers for the Ducks was a release valve for the stress of nursing, creating a perfect equilibrium that enhances her appreciation of each role.
“In nursing, it’s definitely a very serious atmosphere, especially in critical care. So I don’t get to express as much of my goofy self there,” she said in a phone interview. “There’s times when there’s a little bit of down time when I can be a little bit more of myself, but when I’m there I am a lot more serious. Whereas at the Ducks, it’s just been such a great fit and an outlet to really use my outgoing personality. We’re on the Jumbotron and doing dance cams and dealing with fans and little kids and everything so it’s different, but I love that I have both of those.”
Downey, 29, is a few years older than most Power Players, but her life experience was a plus when she tried out on the recommendation of a friend who was on the squad. She hadn’t skated since she was a kid, but she pushed herself to regain her old skills. “I did not fall at all, which I was shocked about,” she said, laughing.
The Ducks didn’t see an inexperienced skater. They saw an accomplished young woman who was naturally at ease with people and with herself, someone who was an asset to her community and who would be an asset to their team.
“We liked her immediately. She had great composure and she handled herself very well,” said Rich Cooley, the Ducks’ director of production and entertainment. “When she told us about herself, that she had this career, we thought this was kind of interesting. Why would somebody like her be interested in this?
“And the more she talked, the more it made a lot of sense. She loved the Ducks growing up. She went to hockey games. She was a cheerleader and involved in athletics her whole life and as she was working on her career she realized, ‘I miss the sports environment.’ She’s terrific. We were hoping her schedule would allow her to do the job and it has, and we’ve been happy with her ever since.”
Downey originally planned to become a doctor but switched tracks after she witnessed nurses’ compassion toward some of her relatives when they required hospital treatment. “The nurses actually were the ones that were really there at the bedside, and I’ve always loved interacting with people. I’m just more of a people person,” she said. “Being at their bedside and seeing how much they really care and put such heart and dedication into caring for their patients and building that rapport with people was something that really drew me to it.”
She got her license in 2014 and worked in home health nursing before she was hired at MemorialCare Orange Coast. The hospital has treated some COVID-19 patients during the pandemic, an eye-opening experience for Downey.
“I think a lot of us in the medical field would say we would be more prepared for something like a natural disaster. I know for myself, that’s how I felt,” she said. “I never really expected a pandemic to come about that was going to be this serious where things were shutting down. I would have been prepared more for an earthquake here in California or a mass accident, something of that nature. It’s definitely been something that I wasn’t prepared for. However, you’re trained for everything.”
She’s grateful for the respect being shown to healthcare workers but initially was uncomfortable with being labeled a hero. To her, being a nurse is simply what she was meant to do. “You think of servicemen and women for their service, and police officers and firemen and people like that and tell them they’re a hero,” she said. “I understand it now. The recognition that nurses and medical staff are getting has been absolutely amazing and I’m always at a loss for words when people say things like that to me.
"I don’t consider myself a hero but it is nice to hear, all the same, and I appreciate anyone that feels that way about me.”
She’s also eager to resume the hockey half of her life and return to the Ducks, though that probably won’t happen until next season. “I would absolutely love it. It’s been an amazing experience and I’m so proud to be part of the organization,” she said.
They’re lucky to have her. So are her patients. Not everyone can bring such grace and care while successfully balancing two such different worlds.