Banner by Matt Stoss

Unsung Heroes on the Sidelines

by Jefferson Griscavage

On September 9, 2013, college freshman Dayle Wood’s heart stopped beating for three minutes on a volleyball court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. However, what should have been a tragedy was averted that day. Because Kevin Parker was there. Because an athletic trainer was there.

Kevin Parker, athletic trainer for Aquinas College, was at his desk that September afternoon when he heard frightened calls beckoning him to the gymnasium. He raced out of his office and down the hallway to find that one of the athletes, Dayle, had suddenly collapsed on the volleyball court. By the time Parker reached Dayle’s side, she was without a pulse and not breathing. Parker took immediate action, administering several rounds of CPR and AED until Dayle was revived. Doctors later determined that she possessed a life-threatening cardiac arrhythmia. Without the life-saving interventions of her athletic trainer, Dayle would probably have died that day.

All too often, athletic trainers are thought of simply as the person who tapes ankles, splints fingers or distributes ice bags. However, Dayle’s story serves as a stark reminder that athletic trainers are capable, and more importantly prepared, for much more.

The fact is, certified athletic trainers (ATs) are highly qualified pre-hospital medical professionals recognized by the American Medical Association. They are first responders in emergency situations during sporting events, ensure continuity and cohesiveness of patient care as part of the sports medicine team and are the primary source of general medical care in youth or athletic populations. ATs are well-trained in the prevention, clinical evaluation, immediate emergency intervention, treatment and rehabilitation of athletic injuries and conditions.

Athletic trainers are unique, because they are the only healthcare professionals that are involved in every aspect of their patient’s medical care. They are at the athlete’s side at the time of initial injury, work with physicians during required surgeries or consultations, collaborate with physical therapists during rehabilitation and help determine when they are physically and mentally prepared to return to competition. Jenny Csonka, Athletic Trainer for Pitt’s Womens Soccer Team, feels it is this continuity of care that makes her job so fulfilling: “I love the athletes and the relationships I build with them every year. It is extremely rewarding to help them come back from their injuries, and ultimately watch them achieve success back on the field.”

Due to the extremely close provider-patient relationship forged between athletic trainers and their athletes, ATs also serve important roles in psychosocial aspects of care following injury. Tyler Turner, Athletic Training Intern with the Pittsburgh Steelers, explains, “when athletes get injured, they are not only dealing with the pain and disability from the injury itself—they also lose a large component of their personal identity, as their sport-specific role is integral to their life and psychosocial wellbeing. In the stressful and uncertain time following an injury, it is critical that we, the athletic trainer, are healing the whole person, not just treating the pathologic tissue.”

Perhaps equally important to mitigating injuries and optimizing athletic performance, athletic trainers play a critical role in patient advocacy. In today’s “perform or perish” sporting environment, athletes are often pressured to risk injury and sacrifice their physical health for the sake of winning a game. In times like these, athletic trainers must work to help the athlete balance their sport, health and future goals. While coaches, athletes and fans might value short-term performance above all else, ATs advocate for both quality of life in the present and for life after athletic participation.  

Dr. Amy Aggelou, program director for the University of Pittsburgh Athletic Training Education Program, explains the important role of patient advocacy within the profession: “Athletic Trainers strive to ensure that their patients receive the best care possible. Educating patients on the risks and benefits of participation and various treatments on their long-term health are at the forefront of our responsibility. Although difficult, sometimes the best care for a patient may be decreasing their activity or retiring from competition.”

It is time the general public becomes more aware of the important roles and responsibilities of athletic trainers. This is because both AT employment and athletic participation are at an all-time high. In the United States, approximately 46.5 million children play team sports each year; the number of older Americans remaining physically active is rising as well. These numbers are encouraging, given the positive effects of sports participation on physical, mental and social health. However, the concomitant result is that a patient is admitted to an emergency room on average every 25 seconds for a sports-related injury. As the number of athletic injuries continues to rise, the need for ATs will continue to increase.

It is reckless to assume that coaches or bystanders can safely manage all of the asthma attacks, catastrophic brain injuries, cervical spine injuries, diabetic emergencies, exertional heat strokes, anaphylaxes or the multitude of other medical conditions that may arise during sports participation. Let the coaches teach, the players compete and the spectators relax, knowing that the athletes are safe under the supervision of a certified athletic trainer.

To learn more about the roles, qualifications and occupational outlook of athletic trainers, please visit the National Association of Athletic Trainers website. If you are interested in becoming involved with the University of Pittsburgh’s Athletic Training Education Program, you can visit the Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ website or email program director Dr. Amy Aggelou at