Athletic trainers now front and center after NFL player's scare

Jan. 14—On Jan. 2, a stunned country watched as athletic trainers and other medical staff sprinted toward collapsed Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin, then proceeded to save his life.

Hamlin had gone into cardiac arrest after absorbing a big hit to his chest as he made a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals.

The trainers and medics performed CPR on the 24-year-old Hamlin in order to restart his heart. Bills trainer Denny Kellington has since been lauded for his "textbook" administering of the CPR.

Among those who have seen the video were the many athletic trainers who work at high schools across southeastern Minnesota, as well as Rochester Community and Technical College's trainer, Greg Holm.

Bills trainer Kellington and others having had the knowledge and savvy to so quickly act and ultimately save Hamlin surprised none of them.

But no doubt, there was pride in seeing their athletic trainer brethren get the job done.

"When something like that happens, we rely on our training and the re-training that we do on a yearly basis," Rochester Mayo 12th-year trainer Dan Christoffer said. "When those things happen, you react, your training takes over and you do what you're supposed to do. It becomes second nature to us.

"But this brings an awareness of what we do. I was prideful that they did a great job and represented us well."

Nearly every high school in southeastern Minnesota is assigned an athletic trainer. Rochester schools Mayo, John Marshall, Century and Lourdes each have their own full-time trainer, working with student-athletes every day.

All trainers come at a subsidized cost to each school, the price varying depending on the school size and what level of service it's getting.

Stewartville, Byron, Kasson-Mantorville, Dover-Eyota, Triton and Cannon Falls are the only southeastern Minnesota schools, outside of Rochester, that have a trainer committed solely to them on a daily basis. The rest are assigned a trainer who makes stops at their school two to three times per week to work with injured athletes and make assessments.

Also, all southeastern Minnesota schools have a trainer on site for each of their home football, wrestling, hockey and lacrosse competitions, the sports deemed most likely to produce a major injury.

As much as Fillmore Central Athletic Director Chris Mensink appreciates what his school gets from his athletic trainer, he wishes that person could be at all of their events.

"It seems like every night that we don't have a trainer, someone has an injury," Mensink said. "But in those times, there is usually a nurse or someone in the medical field who is around."

It wasn't so many years ago that no Rochester or area schools had athletic trainers.

When longtime Rochester Mayo Athletic Director Jeff Whitney hearkens back to those days, prior to the 2000s, he does so shaking his head and trying to recall how his school ever did it.

Back then, an injury to a player on a game day would prompt a look into the stands, the hope being that one of Rochester's many doctors and nurses might be on hand and able to help or at least offer an evaluation. Coaches played out-sized roles in providing first aid and making health decisions for their athletes in those days, too.

"It wasn't until 2004 or 2005 that we first got athletic trainers," Whitney said. "I would never do this job anymore without an athletic trainer. Not with the concussions that happen and the possibility of catastrophic injuries. With the volume of athletes that we deal with now on a season-to-season basis, we end up with 500 to 600 kids with bumps and bruises and a number of other kids who have athletic rehabilitation going on as they try to get back into competition."

In each case at Rochester Mayo, those injured and rehabbing athletes are seeing their athletic trainer, Christoffer. And it's the same situation at each of southeastern Minnesota's high schools, with assigned athletic trainers — the vast majority contracted through Mayo Clinic (it employs 18 athletic trainers) — continually checking in with their athletes.

Thank goodness for all of that, Whitney says.

"It is a huge advantage to have someone like that on your staff," he said. "You want your athletes safe. And when you have a professional (trainer) like that on your staff, that helps you manage so many things. They let us know when is the perfect time to bring an athlete back safely to play. That is huge, because those are big decisions and big family decisions. Athletes need to trust that they are getting good advice. Dan is extremely thorough. He always has the student-athlete first in mind. He has the history and the background on all of our athletes."

Olivia Christianson is a Lyle graduate and in her third year of playing basketball on what is currently the No. 1-ranked Division III junior college women's team in the nation, Rochester Community and Technical College.

The Yellowjackets' athletic trainer is Holm, who is in his 10th year on the job and devotes between 50 and 70 hours per week to it.

Early Tuesday afternoon, like every day, Holm was putting Christianson and other RCTC women's players through some pre-practice warm-up drills, taping ankles and knees, and, in the case of third-year player Cassidy Broadwater, was evaluating her as the Fillmore Central graduate did some quick start-and-stop and side-to-side drills as she rehabilitates from an injury. Holm was assessing when she could get back in the lineup.

As Christianson went through her warm-up paces with Holm looking on, the star guard couldn't help but sing his praises. She says that Holm has been a huge difference maker for all of the RCTC players, with him helping prevent injuries with the routines he puts them through and in guiding them through injuries when they do happen.

"I am always recommending Greg to people," Christianson said. "We love Greg and I don't think we could do what we do if it weren't for Greg. In fact, I know we couldn't (last an entire season without him). It is in the long run that having seen him matters so much. It is in March, when we are still playing, that having seen Greg matters so much."

The 48-year-old Holm, who's been an athletic trainer since 1998 and done it at the professional and college levels before coming to RCTC, knows he is making a difference and gets immense satisfaction from his work.

"I love what I do, every day," said Holm, who shows up for work at 10:30 a.m. and often doesn't get home until 12 hours later, depending on whether there are evening games. "I love the variety of it and I love the preparation that goes with it. I enjoy being prepared and being able to handle things and problem solve as the day goes on. We see and do some of everything every day. (At RCTC), I am also offering a lot of extra support that is not health care. I'm helping mentor and guide kids through stuff (such as mental-health issues). I like that. It is very rewarding."

Chad Eickhoff is the Mayo Clinic outreach supervisor for its athletic trainers, a position he's held the last 16 years.

Eickhoff is also one of its front-line workers, as Chatfield's athletic trainer.

He knows the value of his team's work.

"It is really critical for athletes and parents to have someone who can evaluate an injury," Eickhoff said. "That's evaluating whether it will require surgery, if it needs to be seen by a physician, or if it is something that can be rehabbed at the school which can keep them from having to see a doctor. It is vital to be able to play that role for them and be in the middle of that."

Rochester Century Athletic Director Mark Kuisle agrees. The days of high school coaches being a team's athletic trainer are thankfully long gone. Century's athletes are under the watch of trainer Rachel Lewis, in her first year at Century.

"I don't think we could do business in our high school athletic world without the help and support of athletic trainers," said Kuisle. "The complexity of sports now and the rigor with which kids practice and compete at makes (athletic training) above and beyond the scope of our coaches."

The academic rigors for an athletic trainer suggests the seriousness of the job.

Seventh-year Rochester Lourdes athletic trainer Amber Johnson, who like almost all southeastern Minnesota trainers is employed by Mayo Clinic, wasn't nearly done with her schooling once she received her athletic training degree from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Waiting for her once she got into the workplace would be 50 mandatory hours of continuing training credits every two years. That's demanded by Mayo Clinic in order that athletic trainers stay current in their craft.

Johnson isn't complaining.

"These are great opportunities through Mayo Clinic," Johnson said. "They show us the best treatments and the best care. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be working at Mayo Clinic one day. I feel so lucky to have access to the providers there and their knowledge. There is an unlimited amount that you can learn. It is awesome that so many of its physicians are so open to teaching us things. They love teaching and they love educating. And they know that we trainers are athletes' first line of care."

Things have gotten even more demanding of athletic trainers since the 29-year-old Johnson graduated from college. The requirement now is that trainers also have a masters degree in their field.

The average pay nationally for a high school athletic trainer is around $60,000.

It isn't just the schooling and the continued education that is taken so seriously by athletic trainers. Just as much energy is put into them having an emergency action plan.

All athletic trainers are required to have one and each has a variety of places in their school's building where they are strategically placed.

The plan includes a variety of roles for coaches and others in the case of a medical emergency. It is described in bullet points on the EAP, with the athletic trainer taking the lead.

"I hand out the Emergency Action Plan to all coaches at the beginning of the year," RCTC's Holm said. "Then I place them up at our different venues. Everything is written down, so when we make a phone call to activate our EAP, then everyone knows what to do."

There is little time to waste. The swift action taken recently on national television by trainers and doctors on the night of Jan. 2, and that Damar Hamlin is alive and walking today, speaks to training and a job well done.

The athletic trainers in southeastern Minnesota know all about it.