Trained in treatment (Feature)

By Louie St. George III
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Gracing the wall behind Melynda Brenton’s desk at Farmington High School is a bumper sticker that reads “Support Your Local Hospital — Play Hockey!”

Certainly, the decal appears out of place when considering Brenton’s chosen profession.

The 45-year-old athletic trainer specializes in treating and rehabbing injuries. Thus, her affinity for fast-paced and puck-flying hockey seemingly contradicts her life’s work, which centers around a less-than-rosy collection of twisted ankles, fractured ligaments and tired muscles.

Still, Brenton, one of three full-time high school athletic trainers in San Juan County, wouldn’t trade her job for the world. It is, however, a double-edged sword. When Brenton is thrust into action at a Scorpion sporting event, it means a teenage athlete is injured, sometimes seriously.

“I love my job to death, but I hate it because when I have to work that means somebody is hurt and I hate that aspect of it,” Brenton said during last week’s Webb Toyota Girls Invitational.

Brenton is in her third year at Farmington High. Likewise for Piedra Vista athletic trainer Aaron Stem, whose wife Jessica Stem is the trainer at Aztec High School. Unlike Aaron, and Brenton at Farmington High, Jessica Stem teaches an athletic training class at Aztec.

Their positions are unique to San Juan County. Whereas they work full time with student-athletes, other schools in the county contract with clinics or hospitals to provide medical coverage for sporting events.

For the trio of trainers, long hours are the norm, especially when a tournament beckons or a schedule includes multiple contests on the same night. Work days begin early in the afternoon with paperwork and preparation, and continue until the final whistle or buzzer has sounded and every aching athlete has been treated.

Free time on a Saturday is essentially non-existent during the nine-month school year.

“It’s definitely something you have to enjoy doing,” Aaron Stem said during a break at last week’s Panther Wrestling Classic. “It would be easy if you didn’t enjoy what you do to get burnt out having to work every Saturday.”

Responsibilities include — and this is an admittedly rudimentary list — injury prevention, injury recognition, injury treatment and injury rehabilitation. Taping ankles, of course, is part of the routine, but the job description runs deeper. Much deeper.

From preventive care to assessing the severity of an injury, and often acting as a part-time psychologist, athletic trainers must be equipped to tackle a broad scope of dilemmas. Brenton and Aaron and Jessica Stem work hundreds of games throughout the school year and maintain regular office hours. Like a carpenter at a job site, they tote bulky tool boxes that contain a varied assortment of gadgets — tape, lights, splints, bandages, etc.

After preparing athletes to compete in a game or practice, they remain “on call,” often appearing as a typical fan until their expertise is required.

Though the dangers of athletics are understood and accepted, the drill is far from robotic as natural emotions seep into the equation.

“There’s an element of danger in any sport,” Brenton explained. “When the cheerleaders do their stunts, I’m kind of looking at them half-eyed hoping that they catch the girl that’s way up there in the sky. Or when a football player gets flushed out of the pocket, I’m hoping that he doesn’t get the snot knocked out of him. In basketball, when a kid goes up for a rebound or a layup and gets undercut, I hope he gets up.”

Lots of training for the trainers
According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Web site — NATA.org — athletic trainers are regulated and licensed health-care workers. They are certified by an independent national board, and must pass an exam and hold at least a bachelor’s degree. To maintain certification, athletic trainers are required to complete 80 hours of medically related, continuing education credits every three years while adhering to membership standards.

Brenton, who holds a master’s degree, and Aaron and Jessica Stem, both graduates of New Mexico State University, are licensed by the state of New Mexico.

Injuries are inevitable
Bumps and bruises are as common as free throws and field goals, but each affliction contains a different story.

Brenton underscores this reality when she tells of a young man injured during a 2005 football game at Bayfield. When the player arrived at a hospital in Durango, he didn’t recognize his parents.

“That was extremely scary for me,” Brenton said.

Last year, Brenton witnessed a neck injury that preceded a player having “numbness and tingling in both hands and both legs.” She has dealt with serious concussions, stitches and many distraught ankles.

Aaron Stem admitted one of the worst aspects of his work occurs when a hard-working athlete is forced to the sidelines. Such was the case this fall when Piedra Vista’s standout running back, Tyler Finch, had his senior season cut short with a knee injury. It wasn’t the first time Stem had to watch a talented player hobble off the field — perhaps for good — and it won’t be the last. It’s an unfortunate byproduct of athletics that Stem doesn’t care for.

“You start to really feel bad for some of these kids,” he explained. “You know what it means for some of (them) who have worked so hard.”

Which is why, when an injury occurs, the initial reaction is concern.

“All the possibilities start running through your head,” Stem said.

Brenton agreed.

“I try to stay really calm, collected, but inside I’m panicking thinking of all the bad things that could go on — this kid could be paralyzed, this kid could die, this kid could have a neck injury, this kid could have a serious concussion.”

More than a job
Brenton’s office, meticulously organized, is painted black and green — Scorpion colors — with streaks of silver mixed in. Posters prominently displaying a menacing Scorpion line the walls.

Clearly, this California transplant boasts her fair share of school pride.

“I want the kids to succeed,” Brenton said. “I think athletics is a way for the kids to move on in life and have some success where they may not have any.”

Before a basketball practice last Thursday, Brenton’s office was bustling with eager athletes. One young basketball player greeted Brenton with the words, “Are ya busy?” Less than five minutes later, the young Scorp had tape around his ankle and was ready for battle.

Often, it is during these spontaneous sessions that Brenton plays a different role.

“The kids tell me a lot of things that they don’t tell mom and dad,” she said. “So I can be the mom, I can be the counselor because the boyfriend did this or the girlfriend did that and how could they do that to me? I’m more their friend.”

With all those student-athletes coming through the (revolving) door on a daily basis, all those informal chats, it’s obvious Brenton has a rather large extended family.

For Stem at Piedra Vista, his office door is similar to his Farmington High counterpart in that it’s always open. While he doesn’t have a formal class, Stem does work with students who have taken an interest in the medical field, athletic training or not.

Now, about that tape
Perhaps the greatest display of efficiency is watching a trainer tape an ankle. There’s no wasted motion, no false steps. It’s an art form, quite honestly, like Picasso with a paint brush. Tape is cut, ripped, applied ... and repeat.

Brenton, however, adds a peculiar twist when she lumps the tape between her teeth. Bizarre, no doubt, but nonetheless efficient. In fact, when asked if she could tape an ankle without her teeth, she didn’t hesitate.

“No,” she quipped. “My dentist actually yelled at me one time because I got a tape strand stuck in there.”

When it comes to taping ankles, Brenton said about 60 seconds is par for the course. But, if she’s pressured, 30 or 40 seconds isn’t out of the question.

Aaron Stem isn’t sure how fast he can get the job done. He does know that, like riding a bike, it’s become a habit.

“It kind of just becomes second nature,” Stem said, laughing. “I could probably do it blind-folded by now.”