Caring for Student-Athletes at Pacific

Boxer Athletics are on pause for Fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But this series from 2017 offers a look at how Pacific’s Athletics and graduate programs partner for student care.

In August 2017, members Pacific University’s Boxer football team arrived on campus fired up for the fall season and new academic year.

But before any of them stepped onto Ledbetter Field for practices, they first paid a visit to Pacific’s Dental Hygiene Clinic, where their peers in the dental hygiene program took impressions of their mouths.

Under the watchful eye of faculty members, the dental hygiene students used the molds to make custom-fitted mouth guards onsite.

A few days later, freshman football players filed into the basement of the Stoller Center athletic complex. There, they got free, pre-participation eye exams from students in the doctor of optometry program, who were supervised by Dr. Fraser Horn ’00, OD ’04, the College of Optometry’s associate dean of academic programs and an expert in sports vision.

At Pacific, caring for student-athletes is a community affair.

The university has 24 intercollegiate athletics programs, which compete as members of NCAA Division III. It also has the only college of optometry in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and its College of Health Professions prepares students to work in a variety of fields, from dental hygiene to physical therapy and psychology.

“We have all these resources at Pacific, so why not use them to our advantage?” said Head Athletic Trainer Eric Pitkanen, who has worked to ramp up the level of care that student-athletes receive through internal and external partnerships.

Among college athletes, sports-related injuries are fairly common. Each year, thousands of college athletes sustain injuries, whether concussions or sprained ankles, that lead to missed practices, competitions and in some cases classes. During recovery, some struggle with anxiety and a loss of identity.

“We are trying to provide a level of care that is equivalent to Division I schools and better than what other Division III schools offer,” said Pitkanen, who was an athletic training intern at Vanderbilt University, a Division I school, before he joined Pacific in 2010. He also spent six months as a training intern with the Denver Broncos.

The mouth guard clinic for football players was the result of a new partnership between Athletics and the School of Dental Hygiene Studies. The idea for the clinic — which may be offered to other Boxer teams in the future — grew out of a senior capstone project by dental hygiene student Zachery Young ’17. The project focused on mouth guards and sports safety.

Custom-fitted mouth guards are a big step up from the inexpensive, plastic mouth guards used by many young athletes. That’s partly because they provide more cushion and fit snugly, making them more likely to stay in place. They’re also more comfortable, so players tend to wear them longer.

“In terms of straight-up protection, it’s the best you can get,” said Associate Professor of Dental Hygiene Kathryn Bell, one of several faculty members who supervised the mouth guard clinic.

The pre-participation eye exams for football players were also intended to reduce the risk of sports injuries by identifying players who need vision care before the start of the 2017 season. Players who needed additional evaluation and/or treatment were referred to Pacific’s EyeClinics for comprehensive exams.

Some players who wear glasses — and tend to take them off during games — might get prescriptions for contact lenses. Others might be candidates for vision therapy or sports vision training.

Vision therapy is an effective treatment for many common eye disorders, such as lazy eye and blurry vision. Meanwhile, sports vision training can improve depth perception, peripheral awareness and other visual abilities.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on at the College of Optometry is maximizing visual performance,” said Fraser Horn, who co-founded Pacific’s Sports Vision Club for optometry students when he was a student himself. The club provides screenings to Boxer athletic teams throughout the academic year.

“The better players can see, the better they can perform. And, we may also reduce their risk of injury,” Horn said.

As head athletic trainer, Pitkanen has also leveraged his relationships within Pacific and the surrounding community to assemble a larger and more well-rounded sports medicine team than the one he inherited.

Horn is the newest member of the 12-person team, which also has three physicians (including an orthopedic surgeon and two sports medicine experts), two chiropractors and a physical therapist. With the exception of Pitkanen and four other athletic trainers, team members are volunteers.

See related story on safety tips for young athletes from members of the sports medicine team.

“We ask ourselves: how do we take care of students, make their lives better and enrich their collegiate experience? That’s what we are trying to do here,” Pitkanen said, adding that he aims for a holistic approach to caring for student-athletes.

It’s not just student-athletes who benefit from the growing number of partnerships between Athletics and other programs. The 2017 mouth guard clinic for football players provided dental hygiene students with an opportunity for service learning. Optometry students also gained valuable, hands-on experience by participating in the preseason screening program for football players.

“Having the hands-on, experience of making mouth guards is great. It’s something I will use in my practice after I graduate,” said dental hygiene student Anh “Justin” Mai ’18.

“I will be taking this knowledge [about mouth guards and sports safety] and bringing it to my patients in the future.”

Zachery Willits ’14, OD ’20, who played football for Pacific as an undergraduate, was among the optometry students who took part in the vision screening program. He saw it as an opportunity to gain experience and impress upon football players the importance of vision care.

“When I was playing football, I didn’t realize the importance of having an eye exam,” Willits said. “But now that I’m an optometry student, I recognize how important my vision was to both success in the classroom and on the field.”

Friday, Sept. 8, 2017