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Students at risk: 31% of schools have no athletic trainer to handle concussions, injuries

Athletic trainer Kallie Heiges tends to a football player on the sidelines of Susquehannock High School in Pennsylvania (Photo: Joce Sterman)
Athletic trainer Kallie Heiges tends to a football player on the sidelines of Susquehannock High School in Pennsylvania (Photo: Joce Sterman)
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AIKEN, S.C. (SBG) — With high school sports in high gear, Spotlight on America discovered a crucial safety measure is missing from thousands of sidelines.

A recent study finds about a third of public secondary schools have no athletic trainer to serve as the first line of defense in an emergency, putting student-athletes at risk. A South Carolina family is now leading the charge to change that after a permanent, traumatic brain injury during a football game changed the course of their son's life forever.

In 2016, then-14-year old Logan Wood stood out on the football field. At that age, he was already more than six feet tall and weighed 185 pounds, making him a star on the gridiron in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The teenager loved playing and had dreams of one day wearing a Clemson University uniform before following one of his uncles into the NFL. But one game would change Logan's life forever. A lawsuit filed and won by his family claims repeated hits to the head during one single game severely damaged his brain, leaving him unable to recognize his own mother or recall basic words for months.

Logan's mom, Sarah Wood, believes her son was targeted by the other players because of his size. In footage supplied by the family, you can see that in one play, Logan is shoved by two players from the front as another player slides behind his knees, flipping him in the air and causing his head to slam into the ground. During the rest of the game, that footage shows the teen wandering confused between plays, stumbling and at times, gripping his head. Despite obvious signs of a problem, Logan was never pulled from play.

Sarah Wood tells Spotlight on America she knew something was wrong but was barred from entering the field by a security guard. She says she was forced to watch another agonizing hour of play, before her son was walked out by team staff following the game, in pain, nauseous and unable to identify her.

I kept saying, 'Something's wrong, something's wrong,'" Logan' Wood's mother said after seeing him take repeated hits during a 2016 football game. "He was putting his hand up, cupping his ear, looking confused, putting his hands up, running over and asking, 'What are we doing? What are we doing?' You could see a lot of confusion.'

Sarah immediately took her son to the emergency room.

After tests there and another doctor's visit the following day, the family got a shocking diagnosis. Logan had suffered a traumatic and permanent brain injury, the result of what a doctor told them was an estimated seven concussions during that single game.

A letter supplied to Spotlight on America by a pediatrician who treated Logan said "In my 25 years of practice I have never encountered a patient with such severe post-concussion symptoms."

For weeks, Sarah Wood told us her son, once a straight-A student, couldn't identify basic words; he didn't know how to bathe himself and couldn't identify simple things like salt and pepper or lemon. It took weeks to regain some of those basic functions. "It's like having a giant two-year-old," she said. "You're reteaching all of these things to him."

It just makes you sick. Because I saw it. I knew it. To see the disregard, it saddens me. It disappoints me, it haunts me because we would never want another family to go through what we've had to go through," said Sarah Wood.

Sarah is now raising awareness about a crucial tool she believes could have made a difference the day Logan was hurt: an athletic trainer. His team did not have one present. She believes that if an athletic trainer had been on the sidelines, they could have potentially sounded the alarm and saved Logan from severe injury.

To shine a light on the issue, Sarah started speaking publicly about Logan's story after winning a lawsuit against the school district where he was playing football, claiming it was negligent for failing to have its own athletic trainer on the sidelines.

Court records show the school's athletic trainer was out of town at a conference and was not replaced. The Wood family was awarded more than $800,000 in damages as a result of the suit last April, although the decision is under appeal.

Logan Wood's situation is not unique.

Spotlight on America found many student-athletes across the country are not being monitored by the watchful eye of an athletic trainer. Those uniquely trained and certified individuals serve as health care providers when children hit the field, and are often the first line of defense in an emergency.

Spotlight on America watched one Pennsylvania high school as the athletic trainers handled everything from taping up ankles before a cheerleading performance to dealing with a player's open wound following a nasty header on the soccer field. They also handled numerous injuries during a Friday night football game. And we know when it comes to treating more serious problems like heat stroke, cardiac events, and concussions, athletic trainers are crucial first responders.

Still, many students don't have access to the services they provide, which run the gamut from prevention and management of injuries to rehabilitation. But according to a stunning 2020 report, 31% of public secondary schools across the country don't have any athletic trainers on the sidelines at all.

The report, produced by the Korey Stringer Institute and the University of Connecticut in association with the National Athletic Trainers' Association, also found:

  • Hawaii is the only state with a legal mandate surrounding athletic trainers and as a result, 96% of all public high schools have access to at least a part-time athletic trainer
  • Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have also made them a priority, with about 90% of their public secondary schools staffed with athletic trainers
  • In Alaska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, more than half of their public schools don't have an athletic trainer at all

The lack of athletic trainers is very concerning for Kathy Dieringer, President of the National Athletic Trainers' Association.

Dieringer has more than 30 years of experience in sports medicine and has worked with athletes from secondary schools as well as colleges in the NCAA Division I and II. She also founded three outpatient rehabilitation clinics in Texas.

She told us that not having an athletic trainer ready is a tragedy waiting to happen. "We know that there’s an inherent risk in sport," Dieringer told Spotlight on America. "Having a sports medicine professional to care for that student-athlete is critical to the health and well-being of those student-athletes."

According to a recent study, in rural and inner-city schools, which have less access to athletic trainers, student-athletes are 50% more likely to have a sports-related concussion that goes unidentified or mismanaged.

Athletic trainers do indeed save lives, but we have to be on the sidelines to be able to do that," NATA President Kathy Dieringer told Spotlight on America.

The gold standard, as Dieringer sees it, is having at least one full-time athletic trainer in every secondary school.

If you're going to have sports, if you're going to have an athletic program, you should have an athletic trainer," said Dieringer. "If you have an athletic program, you can’t afford not to because the risk mitigation we provide just in how we’re managing those athletic injuries is so critical.

But, she says, the problem is that many schools don't have the funding to hire athletic trainers and some don't have the awareness to prioritize them. According to Dieringer, NATA works to educate and advocate for the hiring of athletic trainers.

For now, there's no national standard that requires athletic trainers in schools, a serious issue Dieringer says needs to be tackled. At present, each state has its own laws when it comes to certifying and overseeing the profession. For example:

  • In California, athletic trainers are not required to be licensed, meaning any person can represent themselves as an athletic trainer, even without standardized training. A recent survey found that 7% of schools in California reported that their athletic trainer is not certified.
  • In Ohio, athletic trainers aren't allowed to provide an EpiPen, inhaler, or even Tylenol because of the language of their current regulations, which has recently been overhauled and is awaiting the Governor's signature.

We wanted to know if the lack of access to trainers in thousands of schools should justify Congress mandating athletic trainers across the board, and standardizing the legislation that governs them. While she's interested in universal language when it comes to standards, Dieringer told us a national mandate related to athletic trainers would be difficult because of the wide variation among states.

Back in South Carolina, Logan Wood told us if a school doesn't have an athletic trainer, then sports should be paused until one becomes available. The now-19-year old says he supports a national standard when it comes to ensuring schools have athletic trainers. "It kind of frustrates me that people aren’t taking this seriously and this could happen to other people. And it does happen to other people," Wood said. "I think if it can be prevented, prevent it."

His mother, Sarah, fears another blow to the head could be fatal. As a result, Logan was forced to give up his dreams of playing college and professional football. And while his mom is grateful her son recovered from the initial trauma, she has real concerns about the long-term effects of his injury, with the potential for seizures and CTE that are associated with repeated blows to the head. "That one day changed the whole trajectory of his life. It will never be over," she explained.

Still, Logan is focused on the present. Although he says he's struggled with school, he's found success since graduating. He now attends tech school and has a passion for welding, hoping one day to open his own business.

I have a lot of dreams, but a lot of them got crushed so I just rebuilt some new ones," Logan Wood told us. "My biggest thing is I don't want this to happen to anybody else.

As the Wood family celebrates Logan's new path, they're keeping their eye on another prize. Victory, they say, will be seeing trained professionals at the ready at every school across the nation.

"If I can prevent one child from being hurt like Logan was, or one family having to suffer the consequences, then it's worth it," Sarah Wood told us.

For a complete state-by-state breakdown examining access to athletic trainers by state, click here.

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