Penguins’ COVID-19 Tester Has Become Part of the Family

Nurse Guyanna Runion Ackison has done an outstanding job taking care of the team behind the scenes

At the end of last season, Guyanna Runion Ackison, a nurse who handles the team’s COVID-19 testing through BioReference Laboratories, got a text from Penguins VP of communications Jen Bullano Ridgley saying that Sidney Crosby had left her something at the rink.

“I’m like, what? Sid left me something?” Runion Ackison said with a laugh.

So she stopped by the arena to discover that the captain had autographed one of his sticks for her as a gift, with a personalized note saying, Thanks for taking care of us.

“It was crazy…I still can’t even explain the emotion,” she said.

It was a well-deserved gesture for someone who has been one constant behind the scenes as the Penguins have done their best to play hockey in the midst of a pandemic. Runion Ackison was part of the team’s bubble during the 2020-21 campaign, testing them every morning both at home and on the road and traveling with the group to all but one of their away games. 

This season, Runion Ackison – nicknamed ‘G’ by players and staff – has continued to administer the team’s tests when they are in Pittsburgh – swabbing them at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on practice days and PPG Paints Arena on game days – and handles testing for their family members. 

“From Day 1 when we met G, she’s done such an outstanding job for us,” said Penguins head athletic trainer Chris Stewart, who oversees the team’s compliance with the NHL’s COVID protocol. “It took so much work off of my back. You can ask anybody in the organization, they all know G and all of them would say that at the drop of a dime, if we need somebody tested or a test needs to go somewhere, she is there, and she does not complain. You can’t say enough about G.”

It’s been important for Runion Ackison, 43, to bring what a friend calls “Big Momma Energy” to help everyone around her feel safe and cared for during what can be scary and stressful times.

“I want to be a good COVID tester, and I want them to feel comfortable with this person that’s come in during this awful pandemic that has thrown everything up into upheaval,” Runion Ackison said. “From games to the way they travel to how they can be in the locker room, everything has changed. Nothing is the same. And I just want to be one part that doesn’t throw more change into it.”

Runion Ackison, who was born and raised in Virginia in a small town called Farmville, has been taking care of people for a long time. She began her career as a nurse working for a year in a local hospital before deciding that she wanted to do something different. 

“My family is very military-oriented, so I joined the Army when I was 21,” she said. “I went to DC, lived in Germany for four and a half years. I deployed to Iraq for a year, and then came back stateside and lived in Kansas. Then we moved to Pittsburgh in 2008, so I’ve been here a while.”

Runion Ackison, who lives in McCandless with her family, originally came here as a health care recruiter for the Army. Once she had to retire for medical reasons, Runion Ackison stayed so that her two daughters, Aeliana and Carissa, could keep attending school in the North Allegheny district, a rarity for career military families. 

She also stayed because her brother Scott and her dad Guy came to visit Pittsburgh, and never left. With Runion Ackison’s mother passing away when she was 14, Guyanna was incredibly close with her father, calling him her everything. When he suffered a stroke a few years ago and his health started to decline, Runion Ackison stayed home with him until he died in December 2019.

“After I tried to deal with my grief – and I still don’t know that I have – I was like okay, I have to do something,” she said. “I need to get back to being a nurse and taking care of people and doing what I love.”

So Runion Ackison started looking for jobs, but had difficulty finding something, as many places just weren’t hiring at the time. But one night, she was sitting at home when she got an email from a recruiter:

How would you like to be a COVID tester for the NFL?

Within a week, Runion Ackison was doing COVID testing for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a BioReference employee for their 2020 season, and absolutely loved it. Runion Ackison has always been a big sports fan, and since she also loves to garden, her running joke was that she would join the Boston Red Sox field crew after retiring from nursing.

“Little did I know that those guys literally have PhDs in grass growing,” she said with a laugh. “But that’s what I always used to say. So now I joke that okay, well, I’m not exactly working on the grounds crew – but this is still pretty impressive!”

When BioReference began handling COVID testing for the Penguins as well, her boss asked if she wanted to take the lead. She said yes, and Runion Ackison has been a part of the team ever since, which has been an incredible experience. Especially traveling with the Penguins last year, where she got the chance to fly on the team charter and stay in five-star hotels.

“I’m from a town called Farmville – most people in my town don’t get to fly private anything!” she said with a laugh. “Never in a million years did I ever think I’d get to say I flew on a charter jet with the Pittsburgh Penguins, of all teams.”

Runion Ackison would bring everything she needed on the road to administer the tests, essentially her entire lab – including a laptop and printer along with the PCRs – in a massive black case. As soon as the team arrived at their hotel, she would take all of her supplies to the area that she would be working out of – usually a conference or ballroom – and have it all set up for the next morning.

“That way, if somebody happened to be walking in at the same time as me – because they’re not late, they’re usually early – I had everything all set up and ready to go that night,” she said. “We’d test in the morning and be done around, say, lunchtime. We’d have everything sent off to the lab. Then by game time, if I was going to go with them, I would ride with the taxi squad on that last bus. I can’t tell you how many personal hockey games I got to go through last year.”

The only nerve-racking part of it all for Runion Ackison – at least at first – was fear of saying the wrong thing since she wasn’t quite sure of the team’s dynamic. But she quickly learned that the Penguins are a tight-knit group and everyone gets along, and it also helped that one of the Steelers had said something during their testing that helped take the edge off what has definitely been a unique situation.

“One of the NFL players said to me, ‘This is about as intimate as it can get.’ And I’m like, ‘I guess you’re right. I am picking your nose, aren’t I?'” Runion Ackison laughed. “I will never forget that. I love him for that.”

Plus, being in a bubble together also really helped. The traveling party was mostly confined to the rink and the hotel, where they ate all of their meals. And the more time Runion Ackison spent around the team, the more she became comfortable being her amiable, personable self. 

“I treat everybody that same,” she said. “I don’t care if you are somebody on the streets or the president of United States. If I’m taking care of you, I’m going to treat you the exact same. We’re all just normal people. And then I realized they really do enjoy that. They’re not divas.”

It’s been a bit different this year, as the NHL has moved back to a normal 82-game schedule and there aren’t as many restrictions, which allowed the Penguins to bring in other testers on the road. And while they did a great job, they just weren’t the same as G.

“The guys come back and they’re like, man, you’re like the best swabber we’ve ever had. I’m like, thank you! I appreciate that,” Runion Ackison laughed. “I love that. Sometimes I’m like, can I please start traveling again, because I don’t want anybody else swabbing you guys. I know that sounds really kind of weird. But I’m just like, I gotta take care of my guys.”

Runion Ackison did go with the team to Boston on their last road trip to coordinate their testing coming out of the All-Star break, right before the NHL’s revised protocol came into effect this week. Moving forward, there is no longer asymptomatic testing or testing of fully vaccinated close contacts, which means testing will continue only on a limited “for cause” basis in fully vaccinated players and staff who develop symptoms or require testing for cross-border travel.

But Runion Ackison will still be around every day in case testing is needed, ready to step in and step up where needed on the drop of a dime for the members of her extended family as her unique journey with the Penguins continues on.

“As a Retired Army Non-Commissioned Officer and Nurse, I think we’re always looking for a job that will fill the void of the military,” she said. “Your family, made up of individuals that come from all walks of life, but are just like you at the same time. Wanting to make a difference, wanting to live life to the fullest, and with dreams beyond anything any of us have ever imagined. That has been my time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They are my family. Few people get to have jobs they would consider a ‘dream job’ once in their life, much less twice.”

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