Adrian College graduate saves athlete’s life

With the Michigan High School Athletic Association halting its spring sports season, athletic trainer Rebecca Neal, like everyone else, is looking forward to life returning to normal so she can get back to doing what she loves.

Only three days after starting an athletic trainer position at Columbia Central High School last summer in Brooklyn, Mich., Neal was put to the test in a big way. A student-athlete began complaining of cramps and a migraine headache during an August football practice and Neal recognized the symptoms as being life-threatening. Neal, a Waterford Twp. native, had just earned a Master of Science degree in Athletic Training in May at Adrian College and was hired by Henry Ford Allegiance health system two months later.

Neal provides all of the medical coverage at Columbia Central High School through Henry Ford Allegiance health system and is usually out on the practice fields or at a game after the final school bell rings. On day three of the high school’s evening football practice, she was extremely relieved to have had the quality training needed to handle a sudden life and death situation when treating a severely overheated athlete. The players were not in pads but did wear helmets, however, it had been a very hot and humid day in the Mitten.

“He was complaining that his arms and legs were tingling and his feet were going numb, and he said he had a migraine,” Neal said of the young athlete, explaining that he did not start practice with a headache. “That was an indicator for me, and he felt nauseous as well. There is a big push in the athletic training profession for treating heat exhaustion. To treat it you have to begin quickly. You have a half an hour to begin cooling the athlete.”

Columbia Central does not have a tub so Neal used the “taco method” where a tarp is held up and open by several people, and cool water and ice are dumped on the overheated athlete inside.

“EMS (Emergency Medical Services) was activated because I didn’t have a rectal thermometer,” Neal said. “The standard in athletic training, the only way to diagnose heat stroke is with a rectal thermometer, and there is a big push in the community right now, we’re trying to educate parents and athletes, because they get a little nervous when hearing that.”

She said other methods of taking temperature, from the forehead or armpit, are not as accurate.

“It doesn’t give you the true reading,” she said. “The one significant thing about heat exhaustion is you don’t transport right away. With any other emergency you want to transport. With this emergency you want to get their temperature down and then transport.”

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics arrived on scene and took over care of the athlete. Neal said Henry Ford Allegiance health system is currently trying to provide all of the athletic trainers working at its contracted high schools with upgraded thermometers.

Neal credits her heroic actions to having solid training for the situation.

“I’m thankful because the Adrian College athletic training program has such a strong emphasis on emergency medicine,” she said. “And through that, the situations they put us in we were always practicing our different skills. Two years ago, they created a mass-casualty simulation on the football field and I was a part of that as a senior.”

She was also thankful to have worked with the Madison Fire Department while studying for her master’s degree.

“We become certified and licensed EMTs in the state of Michigan. So, having that training as well is awesome that it’s built into the program, giving even more emphasis on emergency medicine,” Neal said. 

Come what may, Neal feels she can handle almost any life-or-death situation on the playing fields and courts. She just relies on instincts and puts her training into action, just like any other athletic trainer has been taught to do.

“I’m just thankful for what I was taught at Adrian College to be able to recognize those symptoms,” she said. “Because without recognizing those signs and symptoms, it could have been a different treatment, a different outcome. So, just that I was able to recognize and treat right away, I’m very thankful I’ve had that training so I was able to save his life.”

Dr. Tina Claiborne, Adrian College’s director of athletic training, is extremely proud of Neal and many other former students who have handled similar medical situations.

“We have had so many life-saving stories from our former students over the past few years,” Claiborne said. “This makes me feel so proud that we emphasize emergency medicine as much as we do.”

Suzanne Harmon, supervisor of sports medicine for Henry Ford Allegiance health system, thanked Claiborne for graduating such fine students.

“Our physicians and administration at Henry Ford Allegiance health system are very proud of her! I am so happy to have Becca as part of our team! Thank you for providing such an exceptional program that graduates students as high quality as Rebecca Neal! Keep up the good work,” Harmon said.

“As an athletic trainer, being in health care, for me this was just my job,” Neal said. “They always tell us we advocate for athletes. So, if an athlete needs me, I’m going to do whatever I can to help them.”