Jan 29, 2015
Q&A with Charlotte LaVerne

The Woodlands (Texas) High School

In her 17 years as Head Athletic Trainer at The Woodlands (Texas) High School, Charlotte LaVerne, LAT, ATC, has grown used to the day-to-day challenges of the profession. But last November, she experienced a day like no other. She used an AED for the first time to save the life of 30-year-old assistant football coach Emory Bartolazzi.

For LaVerne, it’s yet another reason to be proud of her career choice. After graduating from Lamar University in 1985, she served for three years as Head Athletic Trainer at New Caney (Texas) High School before moving to Spartanburg, S.C., where she worked at an orthopedic clinic providing rehab and sports medicine coverage for both Spartanburg High School and Wofford College. Returning to Texas in 1989, LaVerne spent a year coordinating rehab for work-related injuries at The Woodlands Sports Medicine Center.

In 1991, she arrived at her current school, where she has worked with 23 state championship teams and 19 more runners-up. She has built a strong program for athletic training student aides, provided coverage for the rodeo at the Montgomery County Fair, and served as a national certification examination administrator for the NATA. Earlier this year, LaVerne was given the Montgomery County Hospital District Lifesaver Award and named Texas High School Athletic Trainer of the Year by the Texas High School Coaches Association. In this interview, she talks about preparing for an emergency, the difference between working in high schools and clinics, and her athletic training student aide program.

T&C: What was it like to save someone’s life? LaVerne: Anybody who has ever been in that situation is going to tell you the same thing: You don’t think about what you have to do, you just do it. It was November 13, and started as a typical day, with 15 things going on at once. I was in the athletic training room doing rehab with some of our cross country kids while the football team was practicing on the field when I got a call from our head football coach telling me that Coach Bartolazzi had collapsed.

I drove out in our golf cart, which is equipped with a portable AED, and got there less than a minute later with my co-worker, athletic trainer Will Clark. Just by looking at Emory and hearing the sound of his breathing, we knew exactly what to do.

We grabbed the AED, put it on him, and waited for the signal. It was the longest moment in my life, standing there with my hands shaking over the button, saying “Come on, come on, come on.” Finally, we did the shock, and the AED evaluated him again and said to begin CPR. So I did compressions while Will did the breaths. After two cycles of CPR, Emory’s heart began to beat again. By the time EMS got there, he was asking why we were all standing over him, and it wasn’t until I finally got home from the hospital that I realized what we had done.

How do you prepare for an emergency like that?

First, you make sure your department has at least one AED. They’ve become the standard of care, and you don’t want to be saying after the fact, “Gosh, we really should have had one.”

Second, you need to train people to use it. To prepare for something like this, you need to practice. In the past, some of our athletic training student aides complained that they felt silly practicing first aid. Well, they don’t complain anymore, because they were right there on the field with us and saw how important it is. It gave everyone a new sense of respect for our system.

Third, you need to be on good terms with your local physicians and EMS personnel. We have the same AED units they have at EMS, so all we need to do is unplug ours and let them plug in theirs. Once Emory was loaded into the ambulance, we called our team physician, who immediately called a cardiologist, and everything went smoothly. Emory now has an internal defibrillator and is coaching again.

When did you know you wanted to become an athletic trainer? In my early years of college, I worked in a hospital as a physical therapy aid. Before that, I had been a swimmer and taught aerobics, and the physical therapist I was working with at the time suggested I look into athletic training. So I went to talk to Paul Zeek, who was the Head Athletic Trainer at Lamar. He described everything to me, telling me the good, the bad, and the ugly about being an athletic trainer, and I just knew it would be a perfect fit for me.

How did your earlier jobs prepare you for The Woodlands High School? Each position taught me a different aspect of the field, and each step I took made me that much better at what I do. New Caney was a small high school, and I was the only athletic trainer. It wasn’t an affluent community, so in a lot of situations I was the first stop for athletes before going to see a doctor. It was a crash course in learning to make referrals. In the clinical role at Spartanburg, I worked within the physical therapy department, where I learned a lot about rehab and gained a better understanding of the whole process.

Then, coming back to Texas, I worked with industrial rehab, but I found workman’s comp injuries to be really difficult. I was working with adults, and of course they wanted to get better, but they often were battling a lot of other issues that went along with the injury, and it was emotionally draining. So after a while, I wanted to come back to the high school setting. I like working with students and watching them become adults.

How has your job changed over the last 17 years? A lot more is expected of athletic trainers now. We need to work hand-in-hand with physicians, physical therapists, and other medical personnel. We need to be professionals in everything we do, and we need to take responsibility for educating athletes, coaches, parents, and the public.

How do you attract students to your athletic training student aide program?

We start recruiting them at the junior high level, looking for kids who have an interest in medicine. Sometimes we recruit students who have been in athletics, but either due to skill level or injury are not able to keep competing. We bring them into the athletic training room, have them watch what we do, and let them decide whether it’s right for them.

One of your student aides is Lauren Miller, who has brittle bone disease and often uses a wheelchair to get around. How does her presence impact your program?

Lauren is amazing. She has had at least 20 broken bones and spent countless months in body casts, and her attitude is just incredible. Having someone like her on our staff teaches athletes not to complain too much.

She’s also a motivating force for everyone she meets. She could easily sit back and say “Poor me,” but that’s not her personality. Lauren has the determination to push through anything, and that’s contagious. I wish all students worked that hard, and I don’t just mean student athletic trainers–I mean everybody.

Have you recruited other people with disabilities?

Years ago, we had an athletic training student aide with Down syndrome who made a great contribution to our program. It’s important for athletes to see a mix of people involved in sports medicine. And it’s important for all kids to feel they’re a part of something–even if we have to modify our procedures a little to let them work within their capabilities.

How do you work with the other certified athletic trainers on your staff?

We have three athletic trainers, two campuses, and three athletic training rooms. To make the system work, we treat one another as professionals. Even when an athletic trainer uses a slightly different approach than yours, it’s important to respect the difference because ultimately the rehab is going to be very similar.

And you can’t be opposed to learning from it. After 17 years in the same job, if I hadn’t changed and learned from the people I’ve worked with, I wouldn’t be a very effective athletic trainer.

How does covering rodeo make you a better athletic trainer? Rodeo teaches you to think on your feet. An injury could be life-threatening or it could be something very simple. It has also helped me build a larger network of connections in the field. For the rodeo here in Montgomery County, we work very closely with EMS. That builds relationships outside school and creates an even stronger sense of trust all the way around.

What was your most challenging rehab?

That’s a hard question–every rehab should be a challenge. You have to look at each injury and each athlete as unique. But a particularly challenging one began last spring with a football player who crushed his leg in a four-wheeler accident. It didn’t happen here at school, but it did affect his ability to play football. We rehabbed him through the spring, and when football season came around, he was able to play–until he got sick with the flu and started having problems with that same leg. He ended up in the hospital with an infection in his leg, so we went back to work, helping him get his strength back again.

What are the hardest and easiest parts of your job? The hardest is time management. It can be very difficult to give 110 percent to this job and still have time for your family. The easiest is coming to work every day and helping students succeed. That makes it all worthwhile.

What have you learned about balancing school and home life?

Being a good mom and wife comes first. But this job is important to me, and I want my family to feel it’s important to them, too. I want them to value the work I do, because in a busy week I can work 60-plus hours, and in a slow week it rarely goes below 50 hours. I try to involve my family whenever I can. My daughter is in high school now and helps as an athletic training student aide. She can tape as well as anybody.

As athletic trainers, we need to plan in advance and be creative with our schedules. If I have to work until midnight so I can attend my daughter’s swim meet or my son’s baseball game the next day, I’m more than willing to make that trade-off. But it does take some thinking ahead.

What’s your next goal? I’m working on my master’s in school administration, which I’ll finish next March. At that point, I could go into collegiate sports medicine, athletic administration, or school administration–or I could just stay here. We’ll see where it takes me.

What are you proudest of in your career? Teaching my athletes and student athletic trainers, teaching their parents, and giving everyone a better understanding of athletic training by showing them that in the long run, everything is going to work out. It goes back to Lauren Miller, with me teaching her and her teaching me at the same time. For me, the bottom line is to be thankful for everything, learn from everyone, and appreciate every moment you have.

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