Dr. Allison Brager’s Dispatch From the COVID-19 Epicenter in New York City

Neuroscientist. Author. Coach. CrossFit Games competitor. Dr. Allison Brager is the definition of a polymath and a key member of the Momentous team. But beyond all of Allison’s accomplishments, what we love most about her is her passion to serve. When New York became the main battleground of America’s fight against COVID-19 – with 182,000 confirmed cases at the time of writing – she immediately volunteered to leave her base at Kentucky’s Fort Knox go to the front lines and share her expertise at a pop-up testing facility. 

Allison’s knowledge not only served us well as we formulated Momentous Sleep, but also prepared her to take care of herself and the Army clinicians she lead in New York City (the operation just ended on May 1st). And it all started with finding the most effective way to manage sleep deprivation and stress. 

“I specialize in sleep and circadian rhythms research,” Allison said. “We take the latest findings and apply them to the military. The lifestyle of a soldier is different from most people. Sometimes we’re called to report for duty within 24 hours and then have to operate with very limited sleep in high-stress environments, perform in high-risk situations, and leave our family and friends behind. We need to find ways to be more resilient, which I study at the biological level, looking at genetics and biomarkers.” 

It was being a Division I athlete that got me interested in neuroscience. After graduating, I went on to compete in the CrossFit Games team division twice, made it to Regionals a few times as an individual competitor, and now am working with CrossFit athletes in the Army.”

“I answered the call to service as an Army scientist,” Allison said. “I’m helping run the COVID-19 testing lab at the Javits Center. We’re acting as an active field hospital in a place where you usually have these big, happy conventions. I’ve run the New York Marathon before and am used to being part of an exuberant crowd of racers and spectators, so it’s weird to see the streets almost empty. I’ve been keeping a journal to document all the eccentricities. When the nightly 7 PM cheer goes up, it’s so loud that it almost brings me to tears. I’ve also seen people getting creative with exercising while self-isolating, like this one girl who was doing her Peloton workout outside. Another guy was running in place.” 

More Sleep = A Healthier Immune System

Momentous marketing director Sara Hendershot asked Allison how she’s applying her breadth of knowledge to evaluating and treating people potentially afflicted with the coronavirus in New York. 

“One of the things I’m doing with my own soldiers is to lead by example,” Allison replied. “I’m holding them accountable to getting enough sleep because we know from our research that sleep is the tipping point for keeping your immune system healthy. As soon as you don’t get enough, you get more vulnerable to any illness, including the coronavirus. We are working full 12-hour days, but I’m encouraging our guys and girls to nap, as we know this can increase their total sleep time.”

As important as these soldiers’ physical recovery is, their mindset might be even more crucial to serving residents of New York with sustained excellence and unwavering focus.  

“I’m trying to improve our team’s mental state through disengaging with their work after hours,” Allison said. “This involves placing my trust in these soldiers to show up on time every day, clean up afterward, and take care of themselves. We don’t know where the enemy is in this case – it’s all around us. So we need to stay calm during chaos, just like top athletes do.” 

Ready for Anything

One of the most crucial traits of any soldier – or high performer of any kind – is their ability to adapt and make the best of even the toughest conditions. Allison’s service in New York exemplifies this kind of preparedness. 

“My commander told us to pack and prepare like we were going to be sleeping on cots out in the field,” Allison said. “Thankfully, the government contracted with several hotels, so we’re in a hotel in Hell’s Kitchen, which is west of Times Square. This was the best strategy, because giving us a setting that allows us to get good quality sleep will prevent a lot of soldiers and healthcare workers from getting sick.”

Now that Allison has been deployed as part of a group she’s calling “Lab Rats: Elite Force,” Sara was curious about what she does in her role and how extensive the Army’s operation is at her location. 

“We’re running a full field hospital, which is now the largest in the entire Department of Defense,” Allison said. “Everything from patients comes to our mobile lab and we do all the hematology and other elements of clinical laboratory testing – everything you’d have done in a normal hospital. At one point, Elite Force pulled off the world’s largest single-day collection for COVID-19 analysis.”

So what does Allison do to unwind, and how is this elite athlete staying fit while deployed during a pandemic? 

“I try to read and watch TV in one area, work at my desk, and reserve my bed for sleep. I’ve been buying fresh flowers every week to freshen up the space and treat myself with MacroBars. I bought good quality coffee, and then switch to drinking Tazo tea at night before I take a hot shower. That helps me wind down. I’ve also been working out at CrossFit Hell’s Kitchen as I’ve known the owner, Anthony, for many years. He also opened up his gym to the rest of my team, as he wants to help and understands how important it is for us to keep our bodies strong and healthy. I’ve been running with a mask a bit too. It can be airborne from one person for 30 minutes, so you really need a mask if you’re training outside.”

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