More than 20,000 people lined up ready to take on what’s been branded ‘probably the toughest event on the planet’ – Tough Mudder, a gruelling 16 kilometre obstacle course designed by British Special Forces to test a competitor’s overall strength, mental grit and teamwork. Under the blazing sun, competitors scale wooden walls, jump from cliffs, swim submerged in ice cold water under barb wire and run through 10,000 volts of dangling wires to complete the course. It’s a test of personal will and stamina – and in the middle of the pack is Tracy Stober.
A Social Worker in Palliative Care at Providence Hospital, Tracy is anything but what you’d imagine a Tough Mudder competitor to look like. At five foot one inches with curly, long hair, pristine painted nails and dressed in high heels, she laughs off her image saying, “That’s what makes it even more rewarding. I look back on the course, at all these big, burly men, and I know I pushed myself to finish.”
The goal of Tough Mudder isn’t to be the fastest. It’s getting the job done and savouring the camaraderie of helping other people through trenches and walls of muck. Each participant is bound to the pledge of supporting others along the course that may be struggling – a trait Tracy knows intimately.
In the charting room on the Palliative Care unit, Tracy’s chatting with staff as she reviews a patient’s record before meeting with him and his family. She spent her morning with another patient whose death was imminent, holding his hand until his family arrived. As the unit’s full-time social worker, her days are kept busy with patient, family and team meetings, completing psychosocial assessments, offering counselling services and just lending an ear.
“I see patients as often as I can and provide them support as often as possible,” explains Tracy. “I sit with them if they want company and, if they have no family, I sit with them when they are dying so they’re not alone. My days are busy and no two days are alike.”
From early childhood, Tracy knew she wanted to work in a ‘helping’ profession. When she took psychology and sociology at university, she enjoyed learning how psychological and social factors of an individual can work together and have an impact on a person’s life. With family backing (“My mom’s a psychologist, my dad has his PhD in psychology and my aunt is a social worker”), she pursued her Masters in Social Work. She just didn’t expect it to lead her into end-of-life care.
“I’ve always been an emotional person and worried I’d be crying with patients and families instead of helping them. After I started though, I couldn’t believe how much I loved my job. Knowing you’re making the last few days, weeks or months of a patient’s life easier and supporting them through their hardest time is rewarding.”
Like any job, Tracy acknowledges her role comes with its own set of challenges (“A lot of cases really touch you and it’s emotional when the patient passes away”), but the benefits far outweigh difficult days. “I have met the most incredible people working here. The patients and families are honest and they tell you exactly how they feel and what they want – they have nothing to hold back. It really puts life into perspective and helps you stay strong mentally.”
When she’s not at work, she lets off steam through kickboxing, playing flag football and soccer, and running. She got her black belt in karate when she was 17 and kept challenging herself to see what she could do next. Three years ago, she started her own cake business, “Blondies Bakery”, for something to do on the side. “I couldn’t even make toast and now I make custom cakes that look like people, helmets and cartoon characters for fun. Even my family asks, ‘where did this come from?’,” she laughs.
Which leads her back to the obstacle course – and facing a jump off a 20-foot cliff. “My husband, Tyler, was there with me and he coached me through the jump,” she smiles. “It was tough… it really tests your mental grit. But I was lucky to have support of great teammates and I was able to offer support to others going through the course. It really is satisfying reaching the finish line, being handed a t-shirt and having those bragging rights.”
The bragging rights to say she not only survived, but completed the four-hour course. The right to call herself one Tough Mudder.