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Collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin spotlights the role of sports doctors

Two medical fellows stand in front of college atheltes
Max Schulte
Rochester Regional Health Sports Medicine fellows Kishi Patel and Theo Turque watch a RIT men's lacrosse game.

When he fell during last year’s NCAA lacrosse semifinals, Caleb Commandant knew he was seriously injured.

“I felt it right away,” said Commandant, a defenseman on Rochester Institute of Technology’s team. “I slowly tried to get up, but that didn’t really work.”

Athletic staff scurried over to assess his injury and get the then-sophomore off the field. They quickly found the problem: a torn ACL.

It was the first major injury of his career, and it’s kept him on the sidelines since last May.

“My heart sank,” he said about hearing the results. “But it was good to have them know right away.”

Student athlete cheering
Max Schulte
Caleb Commandant, who suffered an ACL injury last year, watches his RIT men's lacrosse teammates play against Nazareth College during a home game.

Dr. Christine Blonski and her crew of sports medicine fellows provide sideline medical coverage for athletes like Commandant who compete in college sports that present the greatest risk for catastrophic injury, including soccer, hockey, wrestling, basketball and lacrosse.

“A good day for me is to be able to come out on the sideline and watch the game and not have to take care of anyone,” Blonski said, “But my training tells me, ‘Hey, I got to be ready to go when something does happen.’”

Close-up of Blonski, with athletes out of focus behind her on athletic field
Max Schulte
Christine Blonski, program director of the Rochester Regional Health sports medicine fellowship program, treats athletes both on and off the field. Blonski uses education as a way to prevent sports injuries but also prepares for rare catastrophic incidents.

Blonski, the program director for Rochester Regional Health’s primary care sports medicine fellowship training program, said the role of sports medicine physicians has expanded over the past few decades, and the demand for this type of expertise has grown significantly.

“The job as a sports medicine physician isn't primarily to take care of that catastrophic injury. It's to be prepared to take care of that catastrophic injury,” she said.

When Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered a potentially life-threatening cardiac arrest Jan. 2 after tackling an opposing player, medical staff revived him on the field using CPR.

Hamlin’s injury and recovery were reported across the country, putting a new spotlight on the people who saved him.

“I think that the injury getting such national recognition certainly does highlight the value of a sports medicine physician,” Blonski said. “But I have felt valued in the role that I have in for as long as I have been practicing.”

Blonski said while it’s rare to see injuries as severe as Hamlin’s, those in the sports medicine world are trained to be ready for those moments.

“As athletics in general advances, our sports medicine field also advances with it,” said sports medicine fellow Kishi Patel. “And the level of care also advances along with the athletes.”

Patel, who trains under Blonski, noted that a team physician’s role can also include tending to the emotional and mental toll that major injuries can have on an athlete.

Sports Medicine 4.jpg
Max Schulte
Christine Blonski (center), Sports Medicine Fellowship program at Rochester Regional Health, celebrates a RIT goal with Sports Medicine Fellows, Kishi Patel and Theo Turque during a RIT Men's Lacrosse game at RIT.

“For some athletes, playing sports is how they deal with life, it's therapeutic for them,” Patel said. “So you have to address all the components.”

This also includes the journey to recovery.

Commandant anticipates returning to the field in a few weeks.

From numerous physical therapy sessions to watching his teammates from the sidelines, he said the recovery process has been challenging, but the athletic staff is preparing him for the return.

“It’s all about confidence,” Commandant said. “My medical staff have been building back my confidence ... it feels good.”

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
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