PlaySafe: Protecting Young Athletes

In 2002, a San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) football player died on the field from an injury that might have been prevented with appropriate medical care. SFUSD schools, including those with interscholastic football, did not have a team doctor or athletic trainer in case of emergency or injury. So UCSF sports medicine specialists decided to step up to the plate and provide student athletes with much needed medical care through an outreach program called PlaySafe.

Since its inception, PlaySafe has grown from a volunteer after-hours and weekend clinic to a valuable player on the San Francisco high school sports scene. But their full-time team of certified athletic trainers, sports medicine specialists and orthopedic surgeons do more than just cover games and fix sprained ankles.

Each week athletic trainers visit 12 SFUSD schools, where they hold sports medicine clinics in fully functional training rooms, helping monitor athletes throughout the season and rehabilitating injured students. The PlaySafe program also provides pre-season physical exams, assesses weight in wrestlers and offers academic seminars and lunch-time and after-school programs on sports medicine.

"We use an athlete's sprained ankle as an opportunity to reach out to them and educate them about health and nutrition, fitness, leading a healthy and balanced life," says Jason Miyamoto, PlaySafe's program coordinator. "Most of these kids don't have access to medical care and information, so it's about providing access and filling in the gaps. And some of these kids view sports medicine as a future career."

At San Francisco's ISA School, one of PlaySafe's athletic trainers started an academic sports medicine seminar where kids learn about topics such as First Aid and wound care, general emergency respond techniques and caring for acute injuries. Some students have even spent a day shadowing sports medicine specialists at UCSF to get a first-hand glimpse of what really happens behind the scenes.

PlaySafe is also offering 300 student athletes a unique service: a free pre-participation physical examination with EKG screening to detect hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), an abnormal thickening of the heart muscles and the leading cause of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. Any athlete who has an abnormal EKG will then be offered an echocardiogram &mash; an ultrasound of the heart — to help make a diagnosis.

"Student athletes and parents should take advantage of this service, especially if there is someone in the family who may have died suddenly under the age of 50," says Dr. Anthony Luke, director of PlaySafe. "However, some athletes with dangerous heart conditions have no symptoms and no known risk factors. This screening is something only regularly offered to professional athletes."

This unique offering is being offered in conjunction with the UCSF Cardiology Department, SFUSD, National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame.

"We hope to catch every health issue that's going on with athletes at the physical exam. If we can identify just one athlete who has an abnormal EKG, and we can help save their life, then it’s worth it," says Miyamoto.

Abby Sinnott is a freelance writer in London.

Story written in September 2009.

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