Comeback Athlete: Morgan Burris

January 29, 2015
Muleshoe (Texas) High School
By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected]


Morgan Burris is not your typical high school senior. Nor is she a typical Comeback Athlete candidate.

Once a promising basketball player and track and field athlete, Burris was knocked out of athletics three years ago by a debilitating case of severe acute asthma. For most young athletes, this would represent a devastating turn of events, but for Burris the situation opened up a new door.

Burris's story began during the 2009-10 school year when she was a freshman at Muleshoe (Texas) High School playing basketball and throwing the shot put and discus for the track team. Though she was known as a tough-minded competitor, her asthma often left her breathless and weak, and frequently sent her to the emergency room.

Burris first began experiencing problems in fifth grade when a bout of breathing difficulty put her in the hospital. At the time, her doctors didn't think her case was anything out of the ordinary and sent her home with a simple diagnosis--she had asthma. But as she moved on to junior high and later high school, Burris's symptoms worsened.

"We started doing a lot more running in junior high and it was really hard on me," says Burris. "I was always complaining about my chest hurting and I could barely run during Phys. Ed. class. I had to have my inhaler close by all the time."

Muleshoe Athletic Trainer Joshua Woolbright, ATC, got to know Burris well since she was making thrice-weekly trips to the athletic training room to treat her asthma with a nebulizer, which transforms asthma medicine into an inhalable mist. "The school bought the device for Morgan and another student who also had it pretty bad," says Woolbright. "Morgan's asthma symptoms would act up on an almost daily basis and I would have to call her mother to come pick her up from school."

As a freshman, Burris's condition was so bad that when she played basketball, she could only stay on the floor for a couple of minutes at a time before needing to sub out. And when the track team did conditioning workouts, Woolbright would go to the track to keep an eye on her. "I said that I was there to watch everybody, but I was really there to monitor Morgan and make sure she was safe," he says. "That's also when I started attending track meets for the first time in my career."

As the year progressed, so did Burris's asthma-induced challenges. "It would happen so fast--I would be okay one minute, then 30 seconds later I would have to go to the hospital," she says. "My body hurt and I would get so tired so quickly. I was always mad at myself because I knew I could play, I just couldn't breathe."

Knowing Burris's struggles would likely continue and recognizing her intelligence, work ethic, and love of athletics, Woolbright had a hunch that the student athletic training program might be a great fit for her. He planted a seed that spring. "I just shared with her how I got involved in the profession, which isn't that different from most athletic trainers," he says. "I got hurt playing sports and I didn't want to not be around my friends and other athletes."

That summer, Burris thought long and hard about her situation. When the 2010-11 school year arrived, she enrolled in Woolbright's sports medicine class to see what athletic training was all about. "I didn't have any clue what an athletic trainer did," she says. "In that class, Mr. Woolbright talked about everything he does to help athletes and it really clicked with me that it was something I should probably be doing."

Armed with a new sense of purpose, Burris joined the student athletic training program. And she made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye to her athletic career. "It was tough, but I finally decided that athletics was just too hard on my body," Burris says. "I was really sad about quitting because I felt like I was letting down my teammates and all of the people that had supported me."

During her first year as an athletic training student, Burris followed the program's educational progression, which begins with hydrating athletes on the field, shadowing the athletic trainer or an older athletic training student, and learning the basics--like how to tape. "I teach our athletic training students the fundamentals of taping, then they practice on themselves until they've got it down," says Woolbright, who started the student athletic training program in 2007. "Once I see they've really improved, I have them tape another athletic training student, who wears the tape job around to make sure it's comfortable and stays tight. Then they report back to me about how it felt.

"Once a student is able to tape another student with proficiency, they tape me," he adds. "If I find that their tape job is supportive and comfortable, they're allowed to begin taping athletes under my supervision, beginning with freshmen and working up to j.v. and eventually varsity athletes by the time they are a senior. Now, Morgan is a very skilled taper. The two of us are able to tape 67 ankles in about 55 minutes."

After spending her sophomore year working on skills and honing her newfound craft, Burris was ready for a larger role both on and off the field as a junior. Within the student athletic training program, she stepped into more of a leadership role and began mentoring younger students. And she faced her first major injury situation during Muleshoe's first home football game of the 2011 season.

Burris was standing on the sidelines helping Woolbright provide athletic training coverage when an opposing player went down with a compound ankle dislocation. In the blink of an eye, Woolbright and Burris were at the athlete's side.

"While I was taking care of the player's leg, Morgan was talking to him, making sure he stayed calm," says Woolbright. "When I was helping load the player into an ambulance, Morgan took the initiative to clear our equipment off the field. She also remembered to bring me the release pump for the air splint, which I had forgotten on the field. Amidst all the chaos that surrounds a major injury, she was able to keep a cool head. It was quite impressive to see a 16-year-old girl conduct herself the way she did."

For Burris, being on the field helping the injured player was the experience of a lifetime. It also revealed to her that she was on the right path. "When I was out on the field with the player, I was totally focused on the moment at hand," she says. "When I got back on the sideline, I really felt the adrenaline rush and even though I didn't like that the player got hurt, it was very rewarding being able to help him by using my skills and knowledge. Not many people get to experience that feeling. It really opened my eyes to how exhilarating athletic training can be. I was hooked."

Despite the contentment she had discovered through her athletic training pursuits, Burris still struggled with asthma every day. After visiting one specialist after another and being hospitalized on multiple occasions (she even had surgery to remove a fungus in her sinus cavities), she finally had a breakthrough in November of 2011 when doctors discovered that Burris's asthma is allergy-induced.

"Basically, my body creates a chemical reaction within itself and I'm allergic to that reaction," she says. "I get a shot every month to 'put the asthma to sleep,' as the doctors describe it. When the 30 days is almost up, I start coughing more and feel my symptoms increase until I get another shot."

Throughout the rest of her junior year, Burris's asthma kept improving and so did her sports medicine acumen. Bitten by the athletic training bug, Burris began seeking out ways to continue her education beyond Muleshoe. In addition to obtaining CPR and First Aid certifications, which are requirements for all athletic training students in Texas, Burris attended various clinics and an athletic training summer camp co-hosted by Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University.

"She and three other athletic training students attended," says Woolbright. "It's about 400 miles away from our town and they raised all of the money to attend by themselves by selling T-shirts and soliciting family members for donations."

The beginning of the 2012-13 school year marked the start of Burris's third year as an athletic training student. As the program's lone senior, she is its unquestioned leader. "She is the only upperclassmen and has taken all of our freshmen and sophomores under her wing and brought them up to a level that I never could have imagined at the beginning of the year," says Woolbright. "She also does a lot of my record keeping and helps me manage the athletic training room inventory."

Woolbright says that Burris's professionalism carries over to her work with the school's athletes. "I know she hangs out with a lot of players outside of school, but in the athletic training room she shows no favoritism and is actually tougher on a lot of them than I am," he says. "The athletic training room is her home and she won't tolerate anyone coming into her home and disrespecting it. She is very proud of what she does."

On the field, Burris is just as valuable. Woolbright recalls one injury-filled football practice last October when she came up especially big. A player had fractured his ulna and radius so Woolbright accompanied him to a nearby hospital. While at the hospital, Woolbright received a phone call from Burris alerting him that a lineman had just injured his knee.

"Twenty minutes later I returned to school and found Morgan and the player sitting calmly in the athletic training room," says Woolbright. "The player had changed into shorts and was sitting with ice on his knee next to a timer that showed how long he had been icing.

"Morgan immediately gave me a complete and thorough history of the injury," Woolbright continues. "She said he felt a pop when the knee rotated and pivoted in a certain direction and pointed to all of the areas he was experiencing pain. It was exactly what I wanted to know. He ended up having torn his ACL, and I was able to do the complete history workup as part of my evaluation based on the information she provided."

For Burris, having an accessible mentor has made all the difference in her rapid education. "Mr. Woolbright opened so many doors for me that I never even knew existed," she says. "And if I have a question, I just ask him. I don't ever hesitate and wonder if it's a good question or not. He has made me comfortable coming to him no matter what."

There's no question that athletic training has enriched Burris's life and adequately filled the void left by her inability to play sports. "In the beginning, I thought maybe it would be a good fit," she says. "It turned out to be the best decision I ever made. I wouldn't trade my role for anything."

Still, as Burris's asthma improved with the new treatment, Woolbright began to wonder if she'd itch for a return to athletics. "She is at the point where I really think she could participate if she wanted to," Woolbright says. "One day I asked her if she ever thought about playing again, but Morgan told me she has no regrets. She says this is who she is and that she has found her niche."

Woolbright says overcoming the trials and tribulations of her condition has helped shape Burris into the finest athletic training student he has ever had. He also views her as a future peer. "She is my right hand," he says. "She is always by my side and is a leader and mentor for the younger students in the program. In four or five years, I definitely see her in the medical profession and as an athletic trainer if she chooses that route."

"I put everything I have into athletic training and love doing what I do," says Burris, who plans on studying athletic training when she attends college in the fall. "Even though I loved playing sports, I've found that I would rather help other athletes more than anything else."
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