What do football players in city high schools have in common with the elite professionals of the New York Football Giants? The public school athletes now have access to the same medical care, regardless of ability to pay, provided by the highly-regarded Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan, team doctors for the Giants and other professional sports teams.
The hospital has teamed up with the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), an organization that promotes student athletics in the public schools of the city.
In August, the hospital offered a pre-season health screening to ensure that PSAL athletes are fit to play and have no underlying medical problems before football season starts. Eighty-one students from various high schools took advantage of the comprehensive medical exam. Twenty doctors and other health professionals checked students’ heart, lungs and vision; tested their strength and flexibility; and even measured how far they could jump.
Doctors also checked the athletes for previous injuries, giving them advice on how to stay safe on the field and avoid future problems. Some students were prescribed exercises, others were advised on icing, taping and bracing to prevent further injury.
For some students, the free screening means the difference between playing the sport and sitting on the sidelines.
“Some students would not go out for athletics because they don’t have health insurance and could not afford the required pre-season physical,” said Jerry Epstein, assistant commissioner of PSAL Football and a Rockaway resident. “I don’t think the students would get an exam this thorough anywhere else. And it gives the kids of New York City the opportunity to have the same doctors who provide care for the New York Giants and the Mets.”
Jasminder Garcha, who attends Townsend Harris High School in Flushing, found out about the screening and traveled to the Manhattan hospital to take advantage of it, although his sport is fencing.
“The doctors gave me handouts of exercises to do so I can improve on my weak areas,” he said. “Now I definitely know what I need to work on.”
Hospital officials say the partnership with PSAL is a win/win situation.
“Meeting a critical need in the community, it gives the hospital the chance to provide a valuable service,” said Dr. James Kinderknecht, a sports medicine specialist and one of the program leaders.
Students lacking health insurance can fall through the cracks of a fragmented health care system. Special Surgery wants to make sure, at least in the case of the young athletes, that this doesn’t happen, according to physical therapist John Cavanaugh, clinical supervisor of the Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center at the hospital.
“In addition to giving the students a complete physical, we check them for any core weaknesses and deficits in strength and flexibility, so we can help them perform better on the field and enhance safety,” Cavanaugh said.
Medical clearance is mandatory for all students wishing to play football.
“A lot of kids’ parents run to doctors and have them sign a form. At Hospital for Special Surgery, we take a thorough medical history and perform a complete physical exam,” said Dr. Mark Sherman, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine and a program leader. “If we are able to pick up one child with a heart murmur, with hypertension or with cancer, we could potentially save a life.”
Once football season begins, hospital specialists will ensure that players receive the necessary care if they’re injured on the field, regardless of ability to pay. Doctors will be available to see students on Monday afternoons at the hospital.
Special Surgery also provides doctors to cover games for six high schools and hopes to expand coverage. Orthopedic surgery fellows and residents in their final years of training have the opportunity to participate, and they gain valuable experience with this patient population.
Dr. Travis Maak, currently a sports medicine fellow at the hospital, said his decision to embark on a career in sports medicine was largely influenced by participating in the PSAL program last year.
“It’s a fantastic program, mutually beneficial for us and for the schools,” he said. “It allows us to have a close relationship with the community and show them what we have to offer.”
Maak has seen injuries ranging from fractured fingers to a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“High school sports are very challenging. These students are very dedicated and our job is to keep them on the field safely,” Dr. Sherman said. “It’s no longer the old concept of resting injuries, sitting them out. We look at injuries differently these days. The field of sports medicine has evolved.”
The hospital is looking to expand the program so it is offered year-round for all sports. It is hoping for donations to cover the cost of some of the services and items the hospital must purchase, such as braces for student injuries.
“It’s all about safe participation in sports, and anything we can do to promote activity and exercise is good for the students,” Dr. Kinderknecht said. “The lessons they learn now will carry on into adulthood.”