Jan 29, 2015
Hospital Rounds

Whether they’re helping patients overcome paralysis, conducting rehab, or assisting in the operating room, these athletic trainers have found the hospital setting to be a rewarding and dynamic workplace. Is this “new frontier” of the profession right for you?

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].

As an athletic training student at the University of Texas, Marlene Rios, LAT, ATC, assumed she’d start her career in a traditional setting–a full-time role in a high school or college athletic department. Instead, three months after receiving her certification, she applied for an opening at University Medical Center Brackenridge in Austin, and walked out of the interview with her first professional athletic training job.

“I’d just graduated from our curriculum program, and I wasn’t sure what to expect working in a hospital,” says Rios, who works in the Brain and Spine Recovery Center. “They were starting this program from the ground up. It turned out there was a lot more to this setting than I’d realized, and I decided it was an avenue worth pursuing.”

Four years later, she’s glad she did. She faced a steep learning curve in the transition from treating NCAA Division I student-athletes to paraplegics and quadriplegics recovering from spinal cord injuries. But she found ample resources at every turn, from state-of-the-art equipment to close working relationships with the rest of her team, which includes managers, surgeons, physicians, nurses, and physical and occupational therapists.

Rios isn’t alone in seeing the advantages. Many athletic trainers have found good reason to work in the hospital setting, and they encourage other athletic trainers and athletic training students to consider the possibilities.

“We’re not trying to win championships here–we’re helping people live their lives,” says Rios. “There’s a different kind of reward that comes from working in this setting, and when you help patients feel good about themselves, it’s enormously gratifying.”


A wrestling injury during his sophomore year of high school brought Mike Huxford, MEd, ATC, CSCS, to the athletic training room for the first time, and he soon set his sights on becoming a college athletic trainer. A bachelor’s degree from Messiah College led to a job as Assistant Athletic Trainer at Wheaton College (Ill.) and a master’s degree from DePaul University, where he provided coverage for men’s soccer, softball, and track and field as a graduate assistant.

Although he loved working with Division I student-athletes, those two years at DePaul made him rethink his career path. “By the time I finished grad school, I was burned out from all the travel,” says Huxford. “Every other week, I was flying to one place after another, then spending hours working the sidelines in the cold, wind, and rain. I needed to recharge my batteries.”

He shifted gears for the next two years, providing part-time coverage as an independent contractor at Wheaton Academy and for the Chicago Eagles amateur soccer club. Then Children’s Memorial Hospital opened its Institute for Sports Medicine, and Medical Director Cynthia LaBella, MD, who had worked with Huxford as a team physician at DePaul, hired him as the hospital’s first athletic trainer.

He began work as a physician extender in August 2004, and as the institute has grown–it’s added a second physician and a second athletic trainer–so have his responsibilities. Huxford spends most of his time seeing patients in the clinic, but he’s increasingly focused on other projects, including marketing the institute, developing a knee injury prevention program for teenage girls, creating an athletic training educational internship program, teaching CPR to hospital staff members, giving presentations at schools and conferences, and conducting research on injuries in the Chicago Public Schools.

Even though starting any new venture can be enormously labor intensive, there hasn’t been any travel, and he’s no longer concerned about burnout. “Helping build this institute has been a great experience,” says Huxford, who works as Sports Medicine Coordinator. “I don’t have as much time to work directly with athletes, but by developing injury prevention programs, I keep people healthier longer, and that’s exciting. I love the consistency of working closely with a physician, bouncing ideas off each other, and continually learning.

“It’s hard work, but at the end of the day, I can go home and spend time with my wife,” continues Huxford. “That has dramatically improved my quality of life.”

After Huxford’s second year at the hospital, administrators encouraged him to pursue an MBA, which he expects to complete in February 2011. When he does, his responsibilities may change again, and he’s looking forward to using his business training to enlarge the hospital’s injury prevention programs, increase its involvement in the community, and expand its research in the public schools.

“I’m not sure yet where my job will go next, but this has been a great path to be on,” he says. “It may not be right for everyone, but for athletic trainers who don’t want to stand outside in the cold, it’s a warm, dry place to work. If you’re looking for a stable environment that’s challenging and rewarding, the hospital setting is it.”


Even before receiving her bachelor’s degree in athletic training from Eastern Washington University, Jennifer Hamsher, PT, OCS, ATC, knew she wanted to stay for a second degree. Two years later, she completed a bachelor’s in physical therapy, and in 15 years of working in hospitals, nursing homes, and sports rehabilitation clinics, she’s combined the best of both worlds–with enough time to start a family, too.

“From the beginning, I was looking for a career that would allow me to balance work and home, which didn’t seem likely in the traditional athletic training setting,” says Hamsher, who works 30 hours a week as a physical therapist at Wenatchee Valley (Wash.) Medical Center. “But getting my ATC was an important step in the process, and I’m constantly drawing on what I learned in the athletic training room.”

In her current position in the outpatient physical therapy department, she often finds herself assessing patients’ readiness to return to sport, analyzing gait, fitting orthotics, creating sport-specific rehab programs, teaching taping techniques, and helping senior athletes reach their competitive goals. She also rotates to the 20-bed Wenatchee Valley Hospital, where she treats post-operative inpatients with rehab modalities, fits assistive devices, retrains stroke victims, mobilizes joints, and helps athletes and non-athletes return to independent living.

“Athletic training has given me extra tools in my kit for treating acute injuries,” says Hamsher. “It’s given me a broader perspective on sports medicine and taught me a lot about the mindset of athletes. Keeping up with continuing education credits in athletic training helps me every day in my role as a physical therapist.”

Without the flexibility of her current work schedule, Hamsher, who adopted a son last year, can’t imagine trying to balance work and home. She says the setting lends itself to family time–in fact, seven of the eight physical therapists in her department are raising children.

As she grows older, Hamsher has found that treating a varied population is much more satisfying than she’d expected. “Athletes are great, but I’m glad they’re not the only people I see,” she says. “When I started school, I imagined myself working with young, healthy, motivated athletes. But some of my most rewarding experiences have come from helping elderly patients regain bladder control or learn how to get out of a chair by themselves. Watching athletes achieve a personal best is a great feeling, but it doesn’t compare to the reward of helping someone walk across a room.”

For Hamsher, the key to choosing the right workplace was thinking long-term, and she encourages athletic trainers to consider going back to school for a PT degree. “Ask yourself where you’d like to be in five or 10 years,” she says. “Do you envision spending a lot of quality time with your family? Adding a physical therapy degree gives you more opportunities for different work settings. Whether you’re in a large or small community, if you have two credentials, you’ll have an easier time finding a job. And with two degrees, you’re likely to make more money–even in a recession.”


By the time she started as a physician extender, Jeanna Polonchek, EdD, ATC, CSCS, OT-SC, CPED, had spent 15 years working in the traditional setting. Her first job, as an Assistant Athletic Trainer at Colgate University, was followed by positions with Attleboro (Mass.) High School, Johnson State College, Bridgewater State College, and the American Basketball League’s New England Blizzard, with one detour to work as a sales rep for an orthotics manufacturer and another to complete her doctorate.

Working for the past 10 years as an Orthopedic Clinic and Surgical Assistant at Wareham (Mass.) Orthopedic Associates, she’s combined all that experience into one job. “One day a week, I assist our surgeons in the operating room at Tobey Hospital, and the other four days I work in the clinic,” says Polonchek. “It’s a great combination of responsibilities and a culmination of all the work I’d been doing in athletic training.”

Polonchek’s work week begins at 7:15 on Monday morning, when she arrives at the hospital, reports to the operating room, and changes into scrubs. Assisting the clinic’s three surgeons, she’s responsible for draping and prepping surgical sites, dressing wounds, monitoring equipment, applying braces, and instructing patients in post-operative wound care. She typically sees patients again three or four days after surgery, when they return to the clinic for their first follow-up visit.

“It’s given me exposure to the most current surgical procedures, techniques, and equipment, which is a great advantage in helping patients both before and after surgery,” she continues. “When people come into the clinic after an operation, I have a better understanding of what they’ve been through and a broader perspective on their recovery.”

Over the years, she has most frequently assisted surgeons in joint replacements (total hip, total knee, unicompartmental knee, and shoulder), fracture care (pinning, rodding, and plating), and reconstructions (ACL, rotator cuff, CMC joint, carpal tunnel, and Achilles tendon). But no matter how many times she assists in an operation, she’s always learning, and as surgical techniques change, so does her role.

“I love working in the operating room,” says Polonchek. “Being part of a surgical team has taken me far beyond what I’ve read about in textbooks, and in the 10 years I’ve been here, the equipment and procedures have been continually evolving. That puts us at the leading edge of patient care, and every day feels different.”

From Tuesday through Friday, she divides her time between outreach coverage for area high school teams, clinical appointments, cast applications, equipment purchases, inventory control, marketing work, educational programs, and patient surveys. In the evenings, she builds custom foot orthotics at home for her business, Sole Remedy, and before going to the clinic each morning, she takes time to exercise at the gym.

“As a physician extender, I’m able to use a lot more of my athletic training skills than I could in the traditional setting,” she continues. “Overall, I see a wider variety of patients and injuries than I did at my other jobs, and I’m always building relationships with physicians, nurses, hospital staff members, and sales reps. There’s an enormous amount of resources available to me, and being part of this team of allied healthcare professionals is an incredible experience.”


As a grad assistant at Morehead State University, Shad Bernard, MA, LAT, ATC, dreamed of someday working in professional sports. But after graduation, he took the first job offer that came his way–and loved it.

For the next eight years, he provided outreach coverage for high school games through the Dayton Sports Medicine Institute, in Dayton, Ohio, making use of both his bachelor’s in athletic training and master’s in sports administration. Bernard developed marketing strategies, started community wellness programs, consulted for high school strength and conditioning programs, and negotiated service contracts. Then in 2006, a phone call from out of the blue changed his life. Good Samaritan Hospital in Dayton was creating a position for an athletic trainer to run its sports medicine program, and he had been highly recommended. Would he consider coming for an interview?

“I was working for a good organization and felt very comfortable about what I was doing,” says Bernard, now the Manager of Sports Medicine at Good Samaritan. “I was being asked to step off a ledge and become a full-time administrator. So I talked to my wife, who’s also an athletic trainer, and we decided it was worth the risk. Four years later, Good Samaritan has grown into one of the largest health service providers in the area, and I wouldn’t trade this job for the world.”

Bernard’s primary responsibility is supervising the sports medicine department’s 16 outreach athletic trainers, who provide coverage for 15 area high schools, a professional indoor football team, and the University of Dayton. Other responsibilities include working with the hospital’s communications department to market the program and meeting regularly with administrators to expand its offerings.

In one of the most significant developments since coming on board, Bernard helped set up partnerships with 10 area high schools, which have signed contracts for 10 years of athletic training coverage in return for naming rights to their stadiums. That multi-million dollar investment into the athletic training program’s growth has guaranteed his staff members long-term employment and given Bernard his biggest on-the-job challenge: providing balanced, consistent coverage to schools–large and small, urban and rural–over a wide geographic area.

“Communication is key in everything we do here,” he says. “That means staying connected with athletic directors, coaches, and students, which is why we implemented a patient survey this year to provide feedback on our outreach athletic training. It means talking with athletic trainers about their role as ambassadors for this program, strategizing with marketers about how we can keep growing, and helping make policy at committee meetings with hospital administration. There’s a lot of politics in working at an institution this size, but that’s turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the job.”

Since making the transition, Bernard misses the hours spent in hands-on athletic training, but still provides occasional coverage for high school games and the hospital’s “Flyin’ to the Hoop” high school basketball tournament. His schedule is much more predictable than when he worked in the traditional setting, his work-life balance feels healthier than ever, and he’s grateful for the time he can spend with his two daughters, now four and six years old.

Moving to administration was a leap he questioned for much of his first year on the job. But he’s glad he took it, and he advises other athletic trainers to consider all their options. “Don’t limit yourself to the traditional setting,” says Bernard. “If you’re going to keep growing as a professional, you need to take advantage of everything around you.

“I would never have thought in a million years that this was the direction I would go in,” he continues. “But when an opportunity comes along, you need to seize it. Don’t be afraid to put your toe in the water–you might like it.”


After four years as an athletic trainer at the Brain and Spine Recovery Center, Marlene Rios still sees some of her original patients. Some come in at 9 a.m., when she assists in treatments with the physical and occupational therapists. Others arrive at the fitness center at 2 p.m., when she oversees workouts, answers questions, and offers encouragement.

“With a population of people who’ve had spinal cord injuries, it takes a lot longer to achieve results than with strong, healthy student-athletes,” Rios says. “But ultimately, it’s more rewarding. This rehab is their life. It’s something they wake up with every day and go to sleep with every night. Knowing that someone believes in them gives them a sense of hope, which is what they need to keep making progress.”

Her responsibilities have continued to grow over the years, and along with setting up exercises programs, Rios often assists in educational outreach, counsels patients on nutrition, assists with research, and networks with other healthcare professionals and community service workers. Since she began, she’s tried to put herself in her patients’ shoes, and after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis early last year, she’s found a new sense of empathy.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself through the diagnosis, and it’s given me more patience and compassion for other people, too,” says Rios. “Even though we’re not going through the same thing, I can understand their adversity, and we’ve had a lot of positive conversations that go both ways.”

Although the MS makes it hard to predict where her career path will lead next, Rios is healthy enough to supplement her full-time job with outside work as an independent contractor, providing coverage for Concordia University (Texas) and the Austin Independent School District. Next year, she hopes to begin a doctorate in physical therapy, which could take three years of full-time study. After that, she might pursue a master’s in nutrition, and ultimately hopes to open a clinic of her own.

“Working in a hospital has taught me to think outside the box,” says Rios. “By focusing on the whole patient, including all their physical attributes and medical history, I’m better able to help them work toward their goals. It’s a very creative place to be, with a lot of thinking on your feet. I’ve been able to make this job my own, and every day I make the most of my athletic training certification.”

The key, says Rios, is to keep a positive attitude. “Don’t be scared,” she advises. “Keep an open mind about hospitals. This isn’t a setting where you can shy away from adversity. You have to meet it head-on and not get discouraged. The work can be difficult, but it teaches you a lot about yourself and the people around you.

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