Local hospitals volunteer staff to keep student athletes safe

by Keith Barber

Kelly Kirkpatrick, a certified athletic trainer, speaks with a West Forsyth High School football player during a pre-season practice earlier this month. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

West Forsyth High School assistant football Coach Brad Bovender watched one of his defensive linemen wince in pain after a hard hit during preseason practice on Aug. 5.

Bovender immediately summoned Kelly Kirkpatrick, the team’s certified athletic trainer, and she sprung into action. Kirkpatrick checked to see if the player felt any pain in his neck or cervical bones. She asked him if he felt dizzy, nauseous or felt any numbness or tingling anywhere. Satisfied with his answers, Kirkpatrick cleared him to continue practicing.

“It wasn’t a concussion, but the fact [the coaches] recognized it as a possibility and sent him over to me — that was awesome,” Kirkpatrick said.

Head Coach Adrian Snow said Kirkpatrick always has the final say when it comes to player safety.

“Nobody wants to see a kid injured; nobody wants to see a kid perish,” he said. “So we’ve got to do all we can to make sure that doesn’t ever happen because we all know those things do happen.”

Kirkpatrick’s presence at the team’s preseason practice is the direct result of a unique collaboration between Wake Forest Baptist Health, Forsyth Medical Center and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

School board member Elisabeth Motsinger said Baptist Hospital and Forsyth Medical Center approached the school system with a proposal for a unique program to share their vast resources with the school system by providing athletic trainers to each of the county’s 12 high schools and onsite physicians at all high school football games.

“They are providing a service that we as a school system could never afford to provide,” Motsinger said.

In May, physicians from Forsyth Hospital, and Wake Forest Baptist Health cooperatively provided physicals for more than 300 student athletes at no cost.

On June 16, Gov. Beverly Perdue signed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act into law. Named in honor of the late Reynolds High School student Matthew Alan Gfeller, the bill has raised awareness of the dangers of concussions suffered during high school athletic contests. The law mandates that all student athletes and their parents receive information sheets on concussions and head injuries, and have them signed before being allowed to participate in tryouts, practices or games.

Matthew Gfeller suffered a severe helmet-to-helmet collision during his first varsity football game in August 2008 and died two days later. Motsinger said the program goes above and beyond what the new law requires.

“It is a very positive and proactive response to a tragedy in our community,” she said.

Steve Garner, athletic training supervisor for Forsyth Medical Center, said the athletic trainer program helps augment the efforts of the schools and volunteers that have typically provided medical supervision during games in the past. All certified athletic trainers in the program have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in either athletic training or sports medicine, and most have a master’s degree. Kirkpatrick got her master’s degree in applied physiology and kinesiology from the University of Florida.

During football season, there are two major focal points for athletic trainers — concussions and heat-related illnesses, Garner said. Much of the research on the short- and long-term effects of concussions on athletes has been spearheaded by Kevin Guskiewicz, chair of the department of exercise and sport science at UNC-Chapel Hill. And the science of short and long-term effects of concussions is an integral part of a certified athletic trainer’s course of study, Garner said.

“We can come in with the educational piece and help keep these kids safe,” he said. “Because back in the day, coaches would hold up fingers and if players could count the fingers, they were deemed okay to continue practice or play in a game. The research wasn’t there and the education wasn’t there for people to really know what was really going on in the brain at that time.”

In the case of heat exhaustion, Kirkpatrick said if she notices a player getting really red in the face and complaining that they don’t feel good, she pulls the player out of practice to help them cool down. She encourages the player to drink a lot of water and uses towels kept in buckets of ice. If the player’s condition doesn’t improve, Kirkpatrick moves him to a shaded spot, and places ice packs on the back of their neck and under their armpits.

If a player is in danger of suffering from heatstroke, trainers will take the player into the locker room and pack them down in ice, Garner said.

“We have a big trough, tub-looking kind of thing; we put them in ice water,” he said. “With heatstroke, time is of the essence. If you just call 911 and wait, by the time they get here and get them to the hospital, it’s going to be too late.”

Rick Strunk, associate commissioner of the

NC High School Athletic Association, said the Forsyth athletic trainer collaborative is unique. No other school system in the state reaps the benefits of two hospitals working closely to underwrite the costs of keeping certified athletic trainers on site at every high school.

“We would love for every high school [in the state] to have a certified athletic trainer but that’s going to be tough in this economy,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful example of how the communities and schools can work together. The winners in this are the student athletes in the county.”

Strunk added that the Forsyth collaborative between Baptist Hospital, Forsyth Medical Center and the school system could be a model for the rest of the state.

During West Forsyth’s football practice on Aug. 5, the Titan players got a break from the record-breaking heat. On the first day of full contact, Snow and his assistant coaches seemed to ease off the intensity, ever mindful of Kirkpatrick’s abiding presence.

“He trusts in my judgment,” Kirkpatrick said.

“It’s a good relationship.”