Burnt Hills

The extra miles: Burnt Hills native will run Boston Marathon in scrubs to raise awareness for nurses’ mental health

Sam Roecker running.

Sam Roecker running.

BURNT HILLS After Samantha Roecker finishes her shift in the emergency room or the outpatient clinic, she remains in scrubs.

That’s because when the nurse’s workday is over it’s time to run. And these days, she runs in scrubs.

The 30-year-old Burnt Hills native is training for Monday’s 126th Boston Marathon. She’ll be running the famed 26.2-mile course — from Hopkinton to Copley Square — in a sleek set of Moxie Scrubs that she says are more breathable than the papery, boxy outfit you might be picturing.

So most days, both before and after work, she puts on her scrubs and takes to the streets.

“At first I just got a lot of weird looks,” said Roecker, who splits time between her job at a Penn Medicine ear, nose and throat outpatient clinic and clinicals at an emergency room that are part of her program as a University of Pennsylvania Family Nurse Practitioner student.

But Roecker’s running isn’t some practical joke. It’s not even about breaking the Guinness World Record for being the fastest person to run a marathon in nursing scrubs, which she’ll do if she beats a time of 3:08:22. (She’s likely to top that mark. This will be her 12th marathon — her third Boston Marathon — and her personal record is 2:29:59, set in Chandler, Arizona. She hopes to run Monday’s race in under three hours.)

In truth, Roecker is running the Boston Marathon in scrubs to make a very serious point — and to raise money for an important cause. Roecker’s goal is to send a message of support to health care workers, particularly around their mental health and well-being, which has been tested during the pandemic.

In addition to awareness, Roecker is raising money. Her campaign had already raised more than $35,000 as of Saturday for the American Nurses Foundation’s Well-Being Initiative programs, supporting the mental health and wellness of registered nurses in the United States. The goal is to raise as much money as possible to support programs like complimentary therapy resources, expressive writing programs, financial consulting, podcasts and mobile apps dedicated to mental health and well-being, as well as content dedicated to grief and bereavement.

‘Really dark days’

Her efforts have also inspired others. Case in point: Roecker’s former high school teammate at Burnt Hills–Ballston Lake High School and a current Burnt Hills cross-country and track coach, Megan James, created a fundraising walk to keep the mission going into May, which is National Nurses Month.

Roecker came up with the idea to run in scrubs after she saw that one of her closest friends from Burnt Hills needed help. Roecker said she and her friend — who she didn’t want to name — met in high school biology class and quickly bonded over their desires to pursue careers in health care.

Both of them did — Roecker as a nurse in Philadelphia and the friend as a physician assistant in New York City.

When the crush of COVID-19 cases arrived in New York it demoralized many health care workers, including Roecker’s friend. The friend was transferred to work in a COVID intensive care unit.

“She suffered immensely from the trauma,” Roecker said. “She was dealing with so much death and being the one to tell family members that their loved one had died when they weren’t there. Just a lot of real devastation, and it was really hard for her to find any mental health resources. She had some really, really dark days.”

Roecker wanted to help. At first, that meant trying to find options such as therapy for her friend. But mental health professionals were booked, and the more Roecker looked the less she seemed to find.

“She had given everything for patients for two years and it destroyed her. It just didn’t feel fair, and it was so frustrating to not have any resources available to her to help,” Roecker said. “She was truly trying to get herself out of such a bad place. It was so irritating to me that there was really nothing out there to help.”

So Roecker looked to the thing in her life that had always brought her peace — running.

“I was just thinking of a way I could use running to do something good and I kind of came up with this crazy idea. That’s where it all started,” she said.

Word spreads

Roecker’s message has taken off. As a result of publicity that includes profiles in People magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer, she now gets recognized on the street when she trains in her Moxies. People often cheer and shout messages of gratitude.

“It is so awesome. It just kind of means that this is getting to the right audiences,” she said. “I’ve also received a lot of nice messages from people on Instagram who I don’t know at all who are nurses just saying how thankful they are. That’s super unexpected and just really lovely.”

The Burnt Hills track and cross-country coach James, who is also planning to run the Boston Marathon, has certainly heard the message. She first saw Roecker’s campaign on social media and it instantly resonated.

“Sam herself is an inspiration to all of us. As a runner myself, just watching her develop from a young age to where she’s at now is really incredible to watch,” James said. “Having been one of her teammates, I know that she works really hard and she’s not just riding on talent to get to where she is. So that’s part of it.”

But the other piece is that James, a physical therapist, knows firsthand what it’s like to be a health care worker run down by the pandemic.

“I wasn’t really working on the true front lines, but we still felt the effects of it. Day after day, we gowned up … and that is just physically and emotionally very demanding,” James said. “We all know that everyone has struggled, but the health care workers have been at the forefront of that. They are such a cornerstone of our society, and we need to take care of the people who are taking care of us.”

To help support the cause, James is organizing a fundraising walk at the Burnt Hills track on Sunday, May 1, from 3-5 p.m. The goal is for people to walk a suggested distance of 2.62 miles and offer a suggested donation of $26.20. All money raised will be added to Roecker’s tally collected for the American Nurses Foundation.

Roecker plans to be at the Burnt Hills event, in part because she wants to do all she can to help health care workers like her friend in New York. Roecker said that friend has since left the bedside to teach in a physician assistant program. But Roecker is confident her friend can get back to seeing patients again.

As for Roecker, she thought she wanted to work in sports medicine, but she’s also enjoyed her time in the ER, even though her rotation in that setting began during the stressful period of omicron cases beginning to crest.

No matter what she decides, running will remain central to her life.

“There were definitely some days when I was mentally exhausted, which kind of carried over into physical exhaustion, and training did not go as well,” Roecker said. “But I just reminded myself that I usually felt better when I went running. That was my constant through the hard time.”

Still, when the Boston Marathon is over, Roecker doesn’t plan to run in scrubs again. She’ll leave those at the office.

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.

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