When a player is injured on the football field or on the basketball court, often times the first person at their side is an athletic trainer. Since identifying and treating injuries is a key aspect of their role, it makes sense to think about having someone with that particular skill set on staff at places or organizations where employees are often taking risks as part of everyday duties—like firefighters.
Deena Kilpatrick ’04 is the athletic trainer for the San Antonio Fire Department (SAFD) where she oversees injury treatment, pain management, and injury prevention for the firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics who risk their lives every day. As a state and nationally certified trainer, Kilpatrick has experience working at the high school and NCAA Division III and Division I level, as well as experience with the U.S. Olympic Fencing Team.
As the former president of the Public Safety Athletic Trainer’s Society and current chair of the Public Safety Committee for the Council for Practice Advancement for the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, Kilpatrick is a leader and innovator in her field. Her role with the SAFD is another example of how she uses her insight and training to help others.
Back in 2013, after multiple calls from her friend—an SAFD firefighter—she began wondering why there wasn’t someone on staff to treat injured members of the department. After doing more research, she realized there wasn’t an athletic training program or anything close to it at the SAFD.
At that time, she says, there weren’t any fire departments in the nation employing athletic trainers. Eventually, she developed a business proposal and presentation. She began calling the SAFD headquarters every day for two weeks until she was granted a meeting with one of the chiefs, which led to a formal presentation that included current SAFD Chief Charles N. Hood.
They were impressed with Kilpatrick’s idea and understood how advantageous it would be to have her on staff. After another year and a half, the department secured funding to start the program and she became full-time in 2015.
“At this time, there are still very few athletic trainers employed by public safety agencies like law enforcement, fire, and EMS, across the nation; however, the setting is slowly growing,” she said. “I have the honor and joy to work with the individuals we call on our worst days. Keeping first responders healthy serves the entire community because an injured first responder could endanger their life, the lives of their crew, and the people they’re helping.”
Kilpatrick says the department saw an overwhelming response during the first year her services were available, which led SAFD Chief Charles N. Hood to expand the clinic’s physical space.
“I always talk about internal customer service and taking care of our firefighters because their health and wellness is one of the most important things I’m responsible for,” said Chief Hood.
“These men and women are tactical athletes that go into harm’s way at a moment’s notice. Sometimes we’re not warmed up. We’re getting out of bed at three in the morning and we’re jumping the wall or pulling a hose line, so we get a lot of injuries.”
Chief Hood says sometimes seemingly small injuries can lead to more serious issues, causing employees to miss work or even mask their pain. When he arrived at SAFD, he knew he always wanted to build a wellness program and soon realized the piece that was missing: someone specifically trained to treat firefighters, EMS, and paramedics on a consistent basis. Chief Hood says that person was absolutely Deena Kilpatrick.
“You want to be able to trust the person that’s providing care for you,” he said. “I’ve had injuries in the past, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the clinic where I’ve witnessed the relationships Deena has built with the men and women of this organization. They have confidence in her and her recommendations. This is especially important for people dealing with debilitating pain, because it can ruin your life, change your family environment, and impact how you interact with others. All of us have a great deal of trust and faith in what happens in this clinic and in Deena.”
As a former athlete herself, Kilpatrick has always been drawn to working with an active population. The idea of providing treatment and rehabilitation to athletes that would allow them to compete to the best of their ability was especially appealing.
“The most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing a patient return to the sport or job they love pain-free,” she said. “Regardless of the athletic training setting, helping a patient through their injury—returning them to full strength and function without pain—is fulfilling. People in pain are affected on multiple levels, whether it’s athletically, academically, in their family lives, etc., and there is no better feeling than helping decrease that pain.”
At TLU, Kilpatrick learned just as much about the importance of athletic trainer/patient trust as she did about the technical and medical skills. That focus, combined with the one-on-one faculty interaction, is what she says sets TLU’s Master of Athletic Training program apart from other universities.
“Your patients have to trust you as a professional and as a person, and my education at TLU helped provide a basis for both,” she said. “Interpersonal relationships in athletic training are integral to the treatment and rehabilitation process. The trust that an athletic trainer builds with their team and their patient population is something you start learning about on day one at TLU. It’s a hands-on environment from your freshman year all the way to graduation.”
She also says that guidance doesn’t stop once you become an alumnus—it extends into your professional career. TLU Professor and Athletic Training Department Chair Dr. Brian Coulombe was actually one of her first phone calls when she had the idea to approach the SAFD about an athletic training program.
“The caliber of instruction provided the knowledge and confidence in myself to be successful in a master’s program and, ultimately, in my career,” she said. “The field has changed significantly since I graduated, but TLU’s Athletic Training program also taught me how to adjust my practice to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of health care.”
Dr. Coulombe says graduates like Kilpatrick exemplify the goals his department has for all of their students.
“In addition to patient care, graduates of the program are prepared to lead within the athletic training profession and health care at large,” he said. “Deena saw a need within the public safety setting and created an opportunity to improve the health care for firefighters. In the process of creating services within the SAFD, she expanded the scope of practice for athletic trainers and served as a role model for others to do the same.”
Given how much athletic training has grown as a field within the last 10 to 15 years, there is a great deal of potential for new opportunities and career paths in various industries. While most people think of athletic trainers primarily working at college or professional sports levels, Kilpatrick says there has been a significant shift into emerging settings.
“These can span anywhere from tactical athletes like within the military, law enforcement, fire and EMS, oil field workers, and even the performing arts as specialists,” she said. “There are also athletic trainers now working as physician extenders in outreach clinics, and some even have their own clinics where they provide services to their community.”
Kilpatrick is now part of that group of athletic trainers serving their community. She’s also part of a TLU alumni network dedicated to providing resources for the future success of current Bulldogs. The SAFD athletic training program is the only program in the nation that accepts students at their site for clinical rotations and immersion, offering another hands-on experience they wouldn’t be able to access at other universities.
Aside from the technical knowledge and professional experience, Kilpatrick says at the end of the day, being an athletic trainer is all about forming a bond with your patients.
“We’re not just prepping people to go back to work or back to the sport they’re in—we’re preparing them for the rest of their life,” she said. “You want them to be able to walk to the mailbox when they’re 70 and be pain free. It’s import-ant to understand every facet of a person’s life when you’re treating them and not just a specific injury they’re dealing with at that time. When I see someone go from a significant injury back to running or dancing or being a firefighter, there’s nothing more rewarding than that feeling.”