Cardiff Blues Women’s Abbie Fleming has swapped the back row for the front line as part of a heroic NHS effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Welsh international, who made her Test debut against Spain earlier this season, has been at the heart of the battle as part of her job working as a physiotherapist.
Fleming has been visiting patients around the community and while she admits it’s been an intense and challenging period, the opportunity to make a positive impact makes it a highly rewarding job.
“It’s been quite intense and quite uncertain with a lot of changes in work and it’s a very different way of working,” said the Cardiff Blues back row, speaking on a recent episode of the Welsh Rugby Union Podcast.
“But I think that we’ve taken the challenge really well and made sure that our patients are being looked after to the best of our ability and that we do our job correctly.
“It’s been really intense, and has opened my eyes to the different challenges that we face. It’s also opened my eyes to different ways how things can be ran differently and how things are going to change post-pandemic.
“There will be a lot of changes and this has definitely brought around a lot of different ways of working, which will make us better in the future as well.
“Donning PPE to go into ICU with definitely COVID-positive patients on ventilators is quite an intense area of work and can be quite terrifying.
“But the on-call rota is in place to keep the patients safe and ensure they’ve got 24/7 physiotherapy and respiratory care.
She continued: “I’m a qualified physiotherapist but my role is based out in the community setting.
“My job role is to assess patients out in the community and in their homes and that’s from a physio perspective. So I’ll focus on their mobility both indoors and outdoors and looking at what different aids they might need for support at home.
“I’ll also look at what different services they might need to live their independent lives and get them back to their base lines and make sure they’ve got the best quality of life that they can achieve.
“I think it’s made me grateful for what I have, and grateful for having my family and how close I am to them, as well as for my friends and the experiencesI’ve achieved through rugby and through life itself.
“It’s been an eye-opener to see how people can go from being a 100 per cent healthy to being quite unwell and in a hospital bed.
“It’s made me see how terrified people can become when their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, are at risk.
“We do the job we do because we love them and we go to work everyday because we love to help people.
“As long as I come home from work, having made a difference to at least one person’s life, that’s me happy.
“I can go home happy knowing I’ve helped other people, and I can go home to train and pursue a rugby career that I want to and achieve my personal goals.
“It’s been a challenge but it’s been one I’ve enjoyed.
“It has been hard, but with the pandemic, what what we juggle hasn’t really changed.
“We’re going to work, we’re coming back and we’re training. That’s been the same.
“The biggest thing that has changed is that we haven’t been able to see friends and family and we haven’t been able to train in gyms or together as a team
“Like I said, we love going to work and we love doing our jobs, and that keeps us going forward.
“There will be quite a few changes post-pandemic and it will take time for things to feel normal again.
“But we need to embrace these changes and something we’ve all learnt from this is that the little things really do matter and the small things can really count, rather than the superficial things.”
Throughout the pandemic period, rugby players have had to adapt their training regime and Fleming is no different.
After an unforgettable experience of making her international debut in Madrid in November, the back row, who has skippered the region, is determined to challenge for future honours when play resumes.
Fleming said: “It’s tough because we’ve had that lack of contact and rugby is a team game. It largely revolves around social interaction and to have that taken away is tough.
“But we’ve been doing quite a lot of virtual challenges and we have a Welsh virtual games going on where we play in teams and complete a weekly challenge which keeps us competitive and keeps that togetherness there.
“But for me personally I’ve been looking at my future goals. I’ve thought about what I want to achieve this year, rugby-wise, and achieve in 2021 and use that as a motivation to come home from work and train.
“I was really looking forward to the regional season this year as it’s one of the best times of the year but, especially with where we’re working at the moment, we have realised that there are a lot bigger things going on.
“One day rugby will resume, and it will get back to normal, but at the moment there are larger things that are more significant globally.
“Around 12 months I ago I’d just come back from an ACL surgery and I’d had my first game back in April.
“As soon as I got back on the pitch I was motivated to play for Wales and didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.
“We went through the regional programme, where I was lucky enough to captain the side, and that led into the autumn where I got my first cap in Madrid.
“It was such a good experience. You meet so many great players and people and make so many good friends, and you also become a better player and a better person.
“My autumn campaign was one that I will remember forever because it was an amazing experience from start to finish.
“I was then a part of the Six Nations squad this year and although I wasn’t quite lucky enough to play, I know that’s a future goal of mine and I’m determined to get my place in those games when I’m able to.
“I remember after the game in Madrid, when the game had finished, all the Spanish fans and the Spanish children, as well as the Welsh relatives, came onto the pitch and it was covered in people. It was amazing.
“I never thought last April that I’d have the chance to play at the Principality Stadium wearing a Welsh jersey. I’d never pictured it.
“But I’m so glad I was given an opportunity to do that and it was a great opportunity for people to come and watch women’s rugby and see what’s it all about.
“We’re getting bigger and we’re getting better and it’s good that people were able to see that.”