Kelsey Henderson, Grade 1 member of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative

How did you become part of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative?

It happened very quickly. I heard about it in April when Mehari announced that the NFL was partnering with four historic black colleges and undergraduate medical colleges in a program that would help increase diversity in sports medicine in the professional environment. Part of that is exposing medical students very early in their careers to that experience.

I was in the third year at the time and not many of us realized that the program was for the 2022 NFL season, so we were actually congratulating the second years and encouraging them to apply and take advantage of the opportunity before the residency. Then I got an email saying, “We know you’re applying for orthopedic residencies this year. We’re interviewing applicants to be part of the pilot. Let us know if you’re interested.” That was a great surprise.

I was a kinesiologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, so I always say I learned medicine through the language of sport and human movement, so this home opportunity was a lot for me. I wanted to have this experience to learn about sports medicine from a physician’s point of view.

I was paired with Tennessee Titans, so it took about four months from the time I discovered the program until my first day with Titans.

What are some of the things you did and/or learned during the month-long rotation?

I spent time with physicians affiliated with the team, including Dr. Thomas Bird and Dr. Damon Petty. I knew Dr. Bird was working with the team before I started the rotation. He’s a giant in our industry, so I was terrified but excited when I knew he was going to be one of the doctors I would be working with. Plus, I worked with the coaching staff — physical therapy, sports coaching, nutrition, etc. — so I was able to see and learn about all the different disciplines of the Titans staff.

A typical day was split between time with Dr. Bird or Dr. Betty’s clinic with the Tennessee Orthopedic Alliance in addition to their work with the Titans. We’d see their patients, players included, from 7 a.m. until the Titans began training at the facility. We attended training and had contact injury experience, watched the athletic training staff in action and helped them a little bit. After the exercise, the injured players were evaluated at the doctor’s office and then we will help treat the players listed for injury or recover.

So this was a real hands-on experience at the time?

Yes, of course. I was able to see what the doctors do on a daily basis, and the coaching staff was very welcoming. In medical school we were referred to physical therapy but couldn’t see what the physical therapist actually did once I got that referral. With the Titans, they showed me exactly how to approach a treatment plan and make schedules, including the difference in what a patient returning to work looks like or a professional player returning to the field. They allowed me to deal with this experience by learning what each department does and how it contributes to the health of the players.

I have to go to the Colts-Titans game on my last day of rotation. It was bittersweet because we won but that was the end of my rotation, so I was wrestling with a lot of emotions. The game is very different from the day-to-day work because employees often rate someone on the spot. Usually, doctors see the patient the day after the injury. On the day of the match you can actually see the impact mechanism and the injury itself, so you get the player’s perspective but you also have a visual cue as a doctor to see what caused the injury and what injury it might have been before. You rate the player. It was very exciting to be there and watch everything that is happening around me. There is a great deal of sharpness from a medical point of view, and you need to be able to hone your skills while fans scream and cheer to your left. It’s a great environment to be in, but at the same time, the seriousness of the work and your interest come first.

Fortunately, no one has to be moved to the cart. I was watching during the match, but let’s say there was a player who got injured during the first half. This person was evaluated in the first half, and we’re going to picture everyone with something that looks less than a soft tissue injury. When the adrenaline wears off, there are sometimes players who realize their arm hurts or something, and we rate them after the match. I was able to help with some of these things.

What a great final day for you. What is your favorite moment of spinning?

game day. I knew it was going to be exciting, and it was rewarding to see the injured players when I started the rotation now playing in the game. I’ve seen them cure and condition them to be healthy and able to play, so it came a full turn. The coaching staff is very quick to meet the needs of the players.

I also met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Medical Officer Allen Sales, and they wanted to know about my experience and ways they could improve it. It was great to see this kind of investment to make this pipeline worthwhile.

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