When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed following a collision with another player during an NFL Monday Night Football game in January 2023, a quick response likely saved his life.
Assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington immediately began CPR and chest compressions to help resuscitate Hamlin. The player survived cardiac arrest and is continuing to recover, with hopes of returning to play in the NFL.
While a cardiac arrest like Hamlin’s is an extreme and rare event, licensed athletic trainers (LATs) provide an extra level of safety and support to athletes at many levels — including for students at our area schools. In March, we mark National Athletic Training Month to spread awareness about the important work of LATs.
LATs provide immediate injury care during games and matches, and they work with athletes on prevention, recovery and rehab. In our region, ThedaCare provides LATs to school districts across northeastern and central Wisconsin, helping young athletes both on and off the field.
“We provide first aid emergency care, evaluate and diagnose sports injuries,” says Phil Mazzei, a ThedaCare LAT who works with the Hortonville Area School District. “We can see anyone in the school district, but typically it’s the athletes.”
LATs create rehab plans for a student’s specific injury. They also provide teams with programs to help prevent injuries.
LATs may work one on one with students needing rehab during the school day, stay for team practices, and attend home games for all types of sports. They can also manage common type of sports injuries, including concussions, ankle sprains and knee injuries.
Preventive and Emergency Care
LATs adapt their focus throughout the school year depending on the sports season and the school’s needs.
“Right now, I’m doing a lot of prevention-type activities with our students,” says ThedaCare LAT Sarah Evans, who works with Clintonville High School and some middle-schoolers in the school district.
Evans also updates medical policies with the school nurse, including emergency action plans.
“I think the most important factor is that we can help prevent injuries, but we’re also there for emergencies,” Evans says. “Emergencies don’t happen every day. But when they do happen, it’s important to have somebody there who’s been medically trained.”
LATs are especially valuable in rural schools where emergency responders may take 20 or 30 minutes to arrive, she says.
“There are still a lot of schools that don’t have athletic trainers,” Mazzei says. “And we see it every year, where somewhere a student athlete is killed from a heat illness or some cardiac event. Usually that’s when there isn’t an athletic trainer there. So, I think sometimes it is life or death.”
While coaches must have some first aid and safety training, LATs hold at least a bachelor’s degree in athletic training, with a master’s degree required for new LATs.
They must pass a comprehensive certification exam and hold licensure through the State of Wisconsin. They complete CPR, automated external defibrillator (AED) and first aid training. LATs are trained to manage dangerous events such as heat exhaustion, concussions, spinal injuries and severe fractures. They can also administer CPR/AED, Mazzei says.
“We can make sure that the student is comfortable and well taken care of in an emergency situation. We also can ensure the parents that their athlete is getting the best care possible — because they’re going to feel frightened and panic when a scary situation arises,” Evans says. “We’re a first responder before EMS.”
LATs also can save parents from having to take their child to a clinic when the injury is simple, like an ankle sprain.
“We specialize in managing those common types of sports injuries, and we can get the athlete back on the field quicker, so it also helps the sports teams,” Mazzei says.
When students need additional care for their injuries, LATs can connect them and their families to specialists within ThedaCare Orthopedic Care.
“We all have access to our Epic system, so I can help athletes and their parents if they need to be seen,” Evans says. “I can look at the provider’s schedule, set up the appointment, and give them times and dates without parents having to call. It really just makes that process a lot easier.”
Parents may not realize that LATs are also trained to support students with mental health and overall wellness, providing an important extra ear and referrals when needed.
“We don’t just tape ankles — we are there for those kids every day, because we are the ones who see them every day,” Evans says.
LATs complete specialized coursework in mental health and work with school officials including guidance counselors and social workers to ensure kids get the help they need.
Having additional mental health support resources is vital for school districts, particularly for girls and LGBTQ students. Those groups are facing crises of mental health at a greater rate than ever before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Being there and working with students every day, I’m a trusted adult, so they’re comfortable coming to see me, talking to me,” Mazzei says. “We’re trained in talking to students through not just physical injuries, but mental hurdles that they’re going through. So, they can use us as a resource.”
Evans, who wanted to become an athletic trainer after working with one herself when she was a high school athlete, says it’s not just about getting students back to their sport.
“I get to help these kids become young adults,” she says. “It’s about making sure that they feel heard and cared about. We see it more where students are not getting the care they need with mental health issues, whether they don’t have a trusted adult, the resources to get the help, or they are scared or nervous to speak out. Athletic trainers are really stepping up into that role to make sure that every kid feels wanted and cared for.”
Need quick care for a student athlete or yourself?
Visit ThedaCare Orthopedic Walk-in Care, open seven days a week.