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LABOR OF LOVE: Newton County athletic trainers take tough job in stride for love of athletes
Felisha Quist
Felisha Quist tends to an injured Woodward Academy soccer player during a region match that pitted Woodward against Eastside. Although Quist works specifically for Eastside High, her job as an athletic trainer puts her on call for any athlete of any team who needs her assistance. -photo by Gabriel Stovall

COVINGTON, Ga. — If at any point during a game a player goes down injured, you may see Felisha Quist or Sierra Nix run onto the field or the court to that athlete’s aid — whether a Newton County player or a member of the opposition. 

And while for some, it may not be a sight some want to see, it is, indeed considered a benefit for them to be seen. 

While often mistaken for physical trainers, athletic trainers perform a far more important job than making sure their athletes are lifting weights or running laps across the field. Athletic trainers are medical professionals — always on standby —  who specialize in the prevention, rehabilitation and first-response treatment of athletic injuries. 

Athletic trainers typically work radical hours, are extremely busy and bounce from school to school around Newton County and beyond on road trips.  And to top it off, they have an admittedly stressful job at times. The injuries they see run the gamut from minor sprains to c-spine fractures (broken neck). 

Most days, athletic trainers hope for a boring day.

But, in case of emergency events, all eyes fall on Quist and Nix who are, in that moment, often looked to not only assess a potential medical emergency, but do it with a calm demeanor, as nervous parents and coaches look on.

“We have to do our jobs and be the calm ones in those situations,” Nix said. “Because [we] have parents freaking out, [we] will have some coaches freaking out, kids are all freaking out and the person is scared as they can be and they’re also in pain and you have to make sure you are the calmest person there. That is how you get them to trust and listen to you and know when they’re okay.”

Having one of these trained professionals on campus at all times could mean more prevention methods being recommended and used for safer practices and games, athletes not being tempted to go outside of approved activities when injured or sick, medical situations being handled more swiftly and calmly, and in some situations, life or death.

“The scariest thing I've seen in my job was when we had a parent have a brain aneurysm (bleeding brain) “This happened right in the middle of a game,” Quist said. “Kids are on the field and can see what's happening. Parents are freaking out, and I had to be the one to take over that. It was after school, and I was the only one there, so [I was] the one who had to get the emergency protocol started.” 

Ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal in 40 percent of cases. Fifteen percent of those die before reaching the hospital. Without an emergency-trained professional present, there could be a tragic outcome. 

Newton County schools enjoy a bit of an embarrassment of riches when it comes to having athletic trainers on hand. 

While roughly 60 percent of Georgia high schools have one athletic trainer available per county —  or sometimes a few per region —  Newton County has three different trainers from Piedmont Hospital, one to specifically cover each of its three GHSA high school. 

Nix takes on Newton primarily, with some Social Circle responsibilities, Quist covers Eastside High and Andrew Shivers has been appointed to oversee Alcovy.

These trainers rotate and work together to make sure that most, if not all, Newton County sports practices and games are covered and safe. And their responsibilities extend way past emergency situations. 

“The public only sees us when something goes wrong,” Nix said. “Even at games, that’s only the smallest portion of what we do because you don’t see the rest of the iceberg.”

“We’re the ones responsible for making sure that they're not practicing when the weather is too hot or when there’s lightning,” Quist said. “We have to make sure they’re hydrated enough, they’re eating and eating correctly.” 

Having a specific trainer for each school and each set of athletes has its perks. Dr. Harrison Goodno, Head Physician of Sports Medicine at Piedmont Medical speaks to the value of having this team of trainers being closely knit to the athletes and coaches. He says he’s proud that Piedmont is making the three Newton County high schools a part of the “10 percent of high schools in Georgia to have their own full-time trainer.”

“The breadth and depth of their knowledge and what they bring to the table is an amazing resource to have,” Goodno said. “We’re learning more and more each day how important [reporting these injuries] are and what potential repercussions there are in young athletes. So from injury prevention to having them out on the field as first responders and supervising rehab protocols, they’re just amazing to have.”

The trainers are able to develop close relationships with their athletes which allows them to gain one of the most essentials assets for a trainer — their athlete's trust.  

“You cannot do this job without having trust,” Nix said. “ The parents have to trust that you are going to take care of the kids. You have to trust that the kids will come to you if they need something and the coaches have to trust that you're doing what’s in the best interest of the kids.” 

Nix explains that sometimes tough calls have to be made, but through a closer bond with their team, they get less backlash and more respect for these decisions.

“Unfortunately sometimes we have to make decisions where I have to take the best player out and it might be the biggest game of the year, but I’m doing what’s best for the kid,” Nix said. “So, being at one school allows you to really get to know your [teams]. We work long hours, just like them, and they become like your family. But when you have multiple schools it is very hard to get them to trust you and build that relationship.” 

“And a lot of the respect comes from the relationships you’ve formed with the athletes and the coaches,” Quist said. “I have a lot of coaches who simply [recognize me as the boss] in the middle of a huddle. The kids will get mad at [me] and frustrated with me but in the long run, they understand that you’re looking out for their best interest.” 

One of those coaches is Eastside football coach Troy Hoff. Hoff calls Quist’s presence to his program priceless. 

“What they do is amazing for us, for our athletes and just our entire coaching staff,” Hoff said. “It’s definitely not something we take for granted. There are times when they’re able to be places we can’t be and see things we can’t see. And sometimes when it comes to an injury or an aspect of training, they have the athlete’s ear in a different way. So we really appreciate what they bring to us.”

Nix refers to a good bond and amount of trust between an athletic trainer and his or her team as the “foundation of getting to work with them." 

Quist can second this, as being at Eastside for five years allowed her to have a deeper bond with the athletes and adopt different positions with them.

“Athletic trainers wear multiple, different hats,” Quist said. “Sometimes you have to be the athlete’s best friend. Sometimes you have to be like a parent to them. Sometimes you have to give them a little tough love, and sometimes you’re like a counselor to them. And I think that’s what’s helped me create such good relationships with a lot of the athletes at the school.”

Aside from being able to build a closer and efficient relationship with their teams, the lighter workload allots Newton County trainers with a much more manageable list of athletes to keep up with.

“It makes it easier to make sure those who are hurt are following up on their restrictions, rehab, and physical therapy appointments. That’s the hardest part,”  Nix said. “When you have so many kids at once it’s easy to [lose track].”

This sometimes stressful and thankless medical profession has its hardships — like telling an athlete that his or her season is over. But also its perks — like seeing one of your athletes bounce back from a tough injury, or even watching them move on from high school to have tremendous college careers. But through it all, both Quist and Nix sum up their duties in the same succinct way. 

“We prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Nix said.