Jan 29, 2015Q&A with Brian Brewster
Coordinator of Sports Medicine, Portage Health Sports Medicine Institute
Brian Brewster, ATC, Coordinator of Sports Medicine at Portage Health Sports Medicine Institute in Houghton, Mich., is a man of many hats and many miles. At Portage, his duties include planning athletic training coverage for Michigan Tech University, Finlandia University, and 750 athletes at five area high schools.
In addition to his supervisory role, Brewster provides hands-on care for the Michigan Tech football team and is an instructor in the school’s Exercise Science, Health and Physical Education Department. And those are just the jobs he gets paid for.
In fact, most of the miles on Brewster’s odometer have come while volunteering with the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team. As Head Athletic Trainer and Strength Coach, he’s traveled with the team to places such as the Czech Republic, Japan, and most recently the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics.
In this interview, Brewster shares thoughts from his journey, including his philosophy on working with athletes and his unique employment arrangement. He also talks about his experience working with disabled athletes and the thrill of watching the team capture gold in Vancouver.
T&C: How are Portage Health and Michigan Tech connected? Brewster: Our services are contracted out by Portage, but my office is really in the Michigan Tech athletic training room. Our team physician has an office in Portage’s physical therapy clinic, which is 300 yards away from Michigan Tech’s campus. It works really well because we can get kids in to see him very quickly–it’s just a short walk to his office.
How do Portage’s physical therapy services fit in?
It’s a different dynamic from most college settings in that we send a lot of our rehabs to a commercial clinic. We have three athletic trainers at Tech working with about 300 athletes–I cover football by myself and am responsible for about 105 kids–so having the PT clinic so close is vital. Plus, I’ve learned a lot from them, and hopefully they have from me. How did you get started with Portage Health?
After getting my bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, I went to Hastings College, an NAIA school in Nebraska, where I got my master’s and served as an assistant athletic trainer for five years. There, we had just two athletic trainers providing coverage for 500 athletes–it was good training for what I’m doing today. In 2005, I started at Portage as an athletic trainer and was promoted to Coordinator in 2007.
What are your main responsibilities at Michigan Tech?
During the fall, about 95 percent of my job is working with the football team. During the winter and spring, 75 percent is spent working with all Tech athletes. I divide up the rest of my time providing home game coverage for a local high school hockey team and filling in wherever I’m needed.
What is your philosophy on working with athletes?
Athletic trainers need to do more than treat injuries. We need to be there to help with athletes’ personal lives, school, or anything else that’s bothering them. Athletic trainers should impact athletes not only during practice and competition, but also outside of athletics.
I like being in the athletic training room and having guys come in before and after practice. I like talking to them, connecting on a personal level, and joking around and having fun–that’s why I love my job. Getting to know each other that way also helps me to earn their trust. You need to work hard and have fun while you do it. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing it the right way.
How did you hone your administrative chops?
My current boss was promoted from the position I have now, so he’s given me a lot of guidance. Also, the head athletic trainer I worked under at Hastings taught me vital time management skills. He showed my how to do a task as well as I could, get it off my desk, and move on to the next thing as soon as possible.
With today’s technology, the organizational requirements aren’t that big of a challenge. Being able to text and e-mail from my phone makes me accessible all the time and allows me to communicate with our other athletic trainers pretty efficiently.
How did you get involved with the paralympic sled hockey team?
Basically, I was in the right place at the right time. I did a two-week volunteership at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado three years ago, when the team was holding tryouts and I was assigned to work with them. I was talking to Dan Brennan, the team’s general manager, about what they did for coverage during the rest of the year and he told me to send him my resume.
A couple weeks later, they had some turnover in their staff and he asked me to come work a camp. I’ve been with the team ever since.
What is the time commitment like?
I don’t work with the sled hockey team during football season, but after the fall, I start traveling with them about one week a month. This past winter was busy. In November, for example, we were on the road for 10 days for a tournament in Prince Edward Island. In December, we had a five-day camp, and then in January, we traveled to Japan for a weeklong tournament. We had another 10-day camp in February, took five days off, and then went to Colorado Springs for a couple of days. Then it was on to Denver, and finally Vancouver for a little over two weeks for the Paralympics.
How did Michigan Tech and Portage feel about you spending so much time away?
Everybody I work with realized it was important to me and were very supportive and happy that I had the chance to be involved with the team. Jen Nesseth and Chris Ipson, two other athletic trainers here at Portage, picked up a lot of the coverage slack for me while I was gone.
What was the first thing you learned working with disabled athletes?
That they’re very self-sufficient. They have the same drive and motivation and they’re very competitive. What they do every day to participate in a sport they love is absolutely amazing.
There are a lot of things able-bodied athletes take for granted, like getting on and off a bus before and after games. That’s a chore for some of the guys on our team. But they just do it and take everything in stride. They don’t complain about anything and like to joke around a lot and have fun. The team is a blast to work with.
How did you familiarize yourself with each player’s physical limitations?
I had each of them fill out a health history form–the same one our athletes here at Tech fill out. Probably five or six of our athletes have spina bifida, which is a birth defect that affects the spinal cord. There were also six amputees. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of some of the other disabilities or conditions, and I had to do a lot of research to educate myself. Then I learned about their limitations by talking to them and charting their injury histories.
What is the scariest scenario you’ve dealt with while working with the team?
The worst actually happened away from the ice during a tournament in the Czech Republic. We were out touring on an off day and one of our athletes started having a seizure on the bus. He didn’t have a history of them, so it was completely out of the blue. An ambulance took him to the hospital and he had an MRI and CT scan. The results showed that he was fine and he has been ever since.
While that was great news to hear, the hospital refused to take his insurance, so we had to pay cash–it was like trying to bail him out of jail. Our general manager and I each went to the ATM and took out the maximum allowable amount so we could pay the bill. Surprisingly, it was actually pretty cheap compared to what we would have had to pay in the United States for the same services–less than $1,000 for everything when all was said and done.
What are some common injuries you encounter with sled hockey athletes?
Lateral epicondylitis, or tennis elbow, might be the most prevalent injury I see on the team. I’ve worked on every player’s elbow at least once. They use their hands and arms to get around all day and then also grip their hockey stick for an hour and a half to two hours during practices and games, so that area of their body receives a lot of stress.
I also see a lot of rotator cuff tendonitis. I tell the guys who use wheelchairs that because they push so much in their daily lives even outside of playing sled hockey, we need to work on keeping their shoulders from rounding anteriorally. So we work on their back muscles a little more to keep them symmetrical.
How did you manage the team’s strength training program? Once I started working with the team, I sent out programs once a week–mostly ideas for off-ice workouts. Each athlete would update me weekly on how he was feeling, how much time he spent on the ice, and what he was doing in the weightroom. I just got them started in the right direction because they didn’t have any formal guidance for what they should do in terms of off-ice training and I wanted to be sure they were doing something.
What are your most memorable moments from the past year?
The top professional moment in my life would have to be the Paralympics in Vancouver, specifically the opening ceremonies. We walked out in front of 65,000 people screaming for us. Winning the gold medal was the cherry on top. But really, the best part was hanging with the guys. They’ve been so good to me, and so has the coaching staff. It was a great all-around experience.
How has working with the sled hockey team improved your skills as an athletic trainer?
When you’re traveling overseas you only have what you can fit in your kit, so you need to use your imagination on a lot of rehabs. For example, I learned a lot of manual therapy techniques to promote muscle energy, active release, and soft tissue mobilization. I carried a lot of what I learned back to our athletic training room at Tech. Now, I don’t use modalities as much as I used to. I realized the power of laying my hands on a person and really got back to basics.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Like any athletic trainer would say, it’s the hours. I love coming to work and I don’t mind working, but being away from my wife and family is the hardest. During the fall, I work close to 80 hours a week, but every Thursday, no matter what’s going on, my wife and I have a standing lunch date. It’s usually at the same place and we never skip it.
What else would you like to try in your career?
I enjoy hockey and would like to work with a college team at some point. Being around the sled guys has exposed me to the sport’s culture, which I really enjoy. There are a lot of good people working in hockey. Currently, Chris Ipson works with our team at Tech and he’s been here for 23 years. If I hold out long enough, I may get the same chance.
Great story and interview with at great athletic trainer. I know one day he will obtain his dream! -Nancy Janousek