An iPad in her hands and a shield across her face, respiratory therapist Emily Riley recently held the device in front of a coronavirus-stricken mother days after she’d given birth.
The woman, separated from her newborn at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital as a precaution, couldn’t feel the warmth of her baby or touch its tiny fingers.
She was left to imagine those precious moments through a 10-inch screen.
Seventeen miles away in Cheney, Riley’s husband, Eastern Washington associate head men’s basketball coach David Riley, is often giving a much different presentation.
The former Whitworth standout points to a TV screen, singling out the day’s successes and failures to a group of players looking to build off last season’s Big Sky Conference title in a film session.
Riley, 31, knows he is in a position of little consequence relative to his wife.
“She has a tough job, and that was the case even before the coronavirus” he said. “I come back from work frustrated over a layup someone missed. She is frustrated over someone who may have died.”
Known previously as Emily Budlong, the Mead and EWU graduate has seen the worst of the virus and how it can attack respiratory systems.
As ventilators pushed oxygen into the lungs of patients in extreme cases – overwhelmingly involving the elderly and those with comorbidities, Emily said – she was one of the boots on the ground at the height of the pandemic.
“It was an eerie feeling, especially at the beginning when a lot people didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “You’re wearing an astronaut-like helmet, and you’re looking down at the patient and thinking, ‘Hey, this very real,’ as you’re on the front lines during a worldwide pandemic.”
Spokane County has had roughly 11,000 coronavirus cases and 219 related deaths.
“It’s been a little bit challenging, but we’re doing the best we can. Everyday is something new,” Emily said. “We base everything we do on what the (Seattle area) is doing. Protocols change, so we have to be adaptable.”
So does David, who will pursue a 2020-2021 season that’s been dramatically altered.
Spokane County is in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan that prevents large groups, throwing a wrench into EWU’s preseason preparation.
Until Oct. 14, EWU, which returns the bulk of its talent from a year ago, couldn’t do much of its standard team workouts until it did consistent coronavirus testing, often a costly pursuit.
The Big Sky Conference’s schedule was changed, EWU lost several potential resume-boosting nonconference games, upcoming games will likely have no fans and coaches, and personnel must wear masks.
The Eagles open the season Nov. 25 at Pac-12 power Oregon.
To help evade infection – and to prevent postponements and cancellations – EWU has essentially put itself in a bubble, a pursuit aided by the isolation of Cheney and its current “ghost town” of a college campus.
Socials gatherings – a major perk of college life in a regular year – are off the table.
“There’s probably not going to be fans, but the guys are diligent about being safe,” Riley said.
“If one gets a positive tests, we’re shut down for 14 days. They know they can’t live a normal college life, but they have big goals.”
EWU experienced the pain of winning a Big Sky regular-season title last season before seeing both of its conference tournament games canceled hours before it was set to play in Boise.
The NCAA Tournament and NIT were ultimately shelved, delivering a blow to a struggling EWU athletic department that needed a monetary shot in the arm.
David’s younger brother, Noah Riley, lost his senior football season at NCAA Division III Lewis & Clark because of the virus, forcing him to get an early start on his coaching career in California.
“The benefit outweighs the risk of playing sports right now,” David said. “There’s a whole mental health side of this to being out there and playing for these athletes.
“So if there’s a way to pursue it safely, we definitely want to do that.”
“If I can’t sit in the crowd as a fan, that’s fine,” she said. “As long as they get to have their season and Dave gets to have his career.
“It has to go on. If there’s a safe way to do it, I’m all for them playing.”
David, Emily and members of the EWU basketball team have also looked to David’s father, Ed Riley – a professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine at Stanford Medical Center – for advice and insight.
Ed Riley, a former two-sport Whitworth athlete in the 1980s and brother of former Oregon State and Nebraska head football coach Mike Riley, was sad to see his son’s coaching career affected by the pandemic.
But not as sad as he would have been if sporting events would have gone on as normal, likely creating an even bigger spike.
“I am worried about the current rise in cases,” Ed Riley said. “Hopefully, the NCAA gets good advice and the players stay disciplined so they don’t get infected.
“The NBA showed you can conduct games safely in their bubble.”
Ed likes the Pac-12’s current approach of no football fans in the stadium and railed against Notre Dame, which had thousands of green-clad fans storm the field Saturday after the Irish upset ranked Clemson 47-40 in South Bend, Indiana.
“That was not the kind of responsible planning by the NCAA, and not the kind of discipline from players and students we need to have college athletics during a pandemic,” Ed said.
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