Stacey Gainer said her job as an athletic trainer at Cleveland’s James F. Rhodes High School is an exercise in improvisation.
With the school short on resources, she fashions athletic braces out of donated tape and bandages, and finds ways to treat injured athletes without the use of expensive medical gadgets.
“It helps to show them that we don’t need to have all the high-tech equipment the suburban schools have,” Gainer said.
At one point, Gainer herself was a luxury Rhodes couldn’t afford. But a program run by University Hospitals and funded by the Cleveland Browns is putting her on the sidelines at no cost, giving the school’s athletes access to immediate medical care.
“Our coaches and our kids have really come to appreciate it,” said Cheryl Dzuro, athletic director at Rhodes. “It’s especially helpful to have someone on site who can get to know the kids before they go down with an injury.”
Last year, the program served more than 600 students at Rhodes and John Hay high schools, giving them everything from on-the-spot care, to nutritional advice, to help filling out insurance paperwork.
Studies show that providing access to medical personnel during sporting events lowers both the rate and severity of injuries. But only about 37 percent of public high schools in the United States employ full-time trainers, according to the National Athletic Trainers Association.
The absence of a trainer is often due to a lack of resources, particularly in urban schools that don’t have active booster clubs to fill gaps in athletic budgets.
Dr. Sean Cupp, co-director of UH’s sports medicine program, said states such as North Carolina, Texas and California are considering legislation requiring that schools provide athletic trainers to keep students safe.
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“I often refer to athletic trainers as my eyes and ears in that sporting environment,” Cupp said. “They’re able to see the injury, do an initial assessment and provide care to stabilize the patient.”
At Rhodes and John Hay, the scope of services for trainers goes well beyond treating sprained ankles and dehydration. School officials say the trainers drive injured students home when their parents can’t make it to games; they also follow up and ensure that they get access to the right doctors to get them back on the field.
John Hay’s trainer, David Silverstein, said just showing up regularly at practices and games can make a significant difference for the students.
“The kids know they have an advocate for them, and the coaches like it because they don’t have to worry about taping up the kids when they need to be worrying about game planning,” he said.
Silverstein said he has bought several pieces of equipment to help with training and often makes direct referrals to help injured athletes get immediate appointments with specialists.
“The reason they’re getting in the next day is because I’m calling personally and saying, ‘This kid needs to get in to see you tomorrow,'” Silverstein said. “Most doctors bend over backward to accommodate us.”
In that way, the program levels an inherently unfair playing field in the world of medical care, where access to talented doctors is often determined more by income level than actual need.
Gainer, the athletic trainer at Rhodes, said the school’s athletes take pride in the mere fact of having her on the sidelines, especially during road games.
“The other athletic trainer will come up and introduce themselves and even the coaches will say, ‘No we don’t need you, we have Stacey,'” she said. “I never thought something so simple could be such a big deal to them.”