If Tetyana Klimenko could make a wish come true, it would be to rid the world of COVID-19, with which she has had an up-close experience, being a nurse in Tulsa.
Her second wish? Giving Weatherford College Lady Coyote basketball coach Bob McKinley many more years to his life.
“Coach McKinley is so great. I wish I could extend his life another 100 years,” Klimenko said. “It’s not just a basketball program in Weatherford. He gives so many people chances, especially from third-world countries.”
Klimenko, from the Ukraine, is one of those athletes he gave a chance. She first came to the United States in 1998, later playing for the Lady Coyotes as a post (she’s 6-feet-5-inches tall) and earning her associate’s degree in 2002. From there, she became the first varsity basketball player in the history of Oklahoma Baptist University to also go through the school’s nursing program.
“Coach McKinley is like a second father to me. Here you are in a country understanding nobody, and it’s pretty scary,” she said. “Bob was interested in more than could we play basketball. He was interested in our lives.”
That included the main part of her life, her special needs daughter Anna. The reason Klimenko wanted to come to the U.S. was to make a better life for her daughter.
“Coach McKinley said ‘We’ll figure this out. She’ll have a future here. You can get a good degree,’” she said.
Klimenko said it was McKinley who helped pave the way for her to go from WC to OBU, where once again she was a nervous young co-ed, making the move after just becoming comfortable in Weatherford.
“Imagine walking into Shawnee, Oklahoma, how scared I was, but Bob told me ‘You’ll see, this school will be great for your future,’” she said. “And he was right.”
McKinley said of Klimenko, “She was one of the brightest students we’ve had in the program, and she worked hard, I mean really hard to be great. She’s one you wish you could keep forever.”
Because she was an A-plus student, the nursing school and basketball program at OBU agreed to let her try and do both. That opened the door for others around the country to do the same, Klimenko said.
“A lot of other schools started contacting them and asking them how they made it work,” she said. “It was very hard work, and I’m very proud of that accomplishment, but if it hadn’t been for Bob, I’m not sure it would have happened.”
She went on to earn a Master of Science in Nursing degree from the University of Southern Indiana online, becoming a nurse practitioner in 2012. She also received her green card through sponsorship by Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Her career has included time working as a nurse in an intensive care unit, of which she said, “Athletes are disciplined. We manage stress well. We thrive in environments like that.”
She has also worked in cardiology, gastrology and general practice. She now works at Saint John Medical Center in Tulsa as a hospitalist.
Initially, Klimenko was thinking of studying finance. Then, at the suggestion of a counselor, she changed her major to nursing.
“I was told it would work better for me to be able to stay in the country,” she said. “And it has really been a blessing to help others.”
For years she would take time off to fly back to the Ukraine and visit Anna, who now lives in Tulsa with her after Klimenko finally received her citizenship in 2017. Anna joined Tetyana and her husband in the states permanently in 2019.
Now, she tries to keep her family, and as many others as she can, safe from COVID-19, a virus she hopes the nation - and world - can eventually contain.
“We knew it was coming and that it was going to be bad. I worked in ICU and I’ve seen a lot of bad. It takes a lot to scare me, but this scared me - and it should scare everyone,” she said. “With people being asymptomatic and spreading it without knowing, we may never get control, but we have to keep working as hard as we can to try.”
And if anyone understands battling, it’s Klimenko, who still reflects on her times at WC often and how those days with McKinley helped her get where she is today.
“It all becomes one big fantastic memory, but I loved going to coach’s office because it was like family,” she said. “You’d get a hug and you’d feel like you’re home.”