Dr. Carter Mitchell said he was on the sideline of a high school football game this school year when a player was hit and fell to the ground.
Mitchell ran out on the field with Becky Taylor, a certified athletic trainer assigned to Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring as part of a pilot program that started this year at 11 Montgomery County public high schools.
“When I got out there, he couldn’t feel his legs or arms and couldn’t move his legs or arms,” said Mitchell, an orthopedic surgeon at MedStar Montgomery Medical Center in Olney who works closely with Taylor in the program.
For Mitchell — who attends some Sherwood games with Taylor — the incident highlights the importance of having trainers at school games.
“It’s having trained professionals on the sideline when they’re needed,” he said.
The program is serving as a test for the school system, which has never before had athletic trainers on staff, according to William Beattie, the school system’s director of systemwide athletics.
“We’re seriously considering the addition of athletic trainers,” Beattie said. “We wanted to see what it would look like.”
The program, which could continue for a second year, involves nine athletic trainers from three health care vendors, Beattie said.
The trainers — two of whom are assigned to a couple of schools — cover games and practices as much as possible for all of a school’s athletic teams.
Taylor, an athletic trainer from MedStar with 10 years of experience, said she works about 40 to 50 hours a week with Sherwood’s teams.
In the case of the injured football player, she said, she and Mitchell were able to stabilize his spine, check his vitals and place him on a backboard so he could be taken to a hospital.
Their efforts, along with those of an emergency medical technician at the game, made a difference, Taylor said.
“We had better access to care and it was quicker,” she said.
At each school, the trainer’s responsibilities include tending to injuries, monitoring athletes when they get a concussion, determining whether athletes are ready to return to play and some rehabilitation work, Beattie said.
He said he thinks athletic trainers are “important” for county schools to have, but added that the school system is working on a tight budget with many demands.
The school system reached out to vendors currently providing concussion baseline testing for student athletes to see if they also would provide athletic training services as part of a pilot, he said.
The vendors that agreed to are providing the trainers at no cost to the school system, he said.
Beattie said school system officials will soon meet with the vendors — which include the MedStar medical center, ATI Physical Therapy and Adventist Rehabilitation Hospital of Maryland — to discuss the pilot program and which vendors might want to participate in a second year of the pilot program.
Beattie said the school system has taken measures other than athletic trainers to make sure students are safe when they take to the field or court.
In response to heightened concern about student-athlete safety around the country, Beattie said, the school system has “significantly adjusted” with added health and safety procedures, including concussion baseline testing for students.
Coaches are trained in several areas, including CPR, defibrillators, concussions and proper hydration, he said.
Each school also has two stipend positions — a CPR and defibrillator trainer for coaches and a first aid assistant, he said.
Dan Harwood, head coach of the boys basketball team at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Rockville, said he thinks the county school system is “behind the times” when it comes to having athletic trainers.
While he feels competent to address the needs of injured players, he said, it’s valuable to have a professional present devoted to treating injuries quickly.
“It’s always a concern, especially in the heat of the battle, if we do have any kind of serious injury,” he said.
Harwood said coaching is stressful enough.
“I would be willing to pay some of my stipend to have that trainer,” he said.
Taylor said she thinks trainers bring sports medicine expertise and an eye for whether an injury is serious.
She has dealt with a variety of injuries this year, she said, including a fractured knee cap, elbow dislocations, ankle injuries and “tons of concussions.”
“I think it takes a lot of pressure off the coaches,” she said.
Mitchell said he thinks the county school system is catching up to others in the nation that have athletic trainers.
The trainers are “the first eyes and ears on the field,” he said, and are able to identify signs of a concussion that might not be as obvious as an injury such as a sprained ankle.
Students can find it easier to talk to the trainers rather than a coach, he said, because the trainer doesn’t determine playing time or status on a team.
Tom Hearn — who became an advocate for athletic safety after his son suffered a concussion while playing football at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda — said he thinks the pilot program is a step in the right direction but wants to see trainers at all 25 high schools in the county.
If the school system can’t provide athletic trainers, he said, it shouldn’t allow students to participate in contact sports that expose them to serious injuries.
He pointed to Fairfax County, Va., as a school district that decided to direct funds toward athletic trainers.
“These are ultimately choices that get made, budgetary choices that get made about keeping students safe,” he said.