The trip to Frisco, Texas, for the South Dakota State football team will include a full staff of Sanford Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine caregivers entrusted with keeping the Jackrabbits healthy before, during and after the program’s attempt to win an FCS national championship.
It’s important to note as the team works its way toward Sunday’s 1 p.m. Central kickoff at Toyota Stadium against Sam Houston State that keeping a college football team healthy during the pandemic has been an unprecedented undertaking.
This enterprise includes every level of support at Sanford and every level of cooperation from the football program, its coaches and support staff.
The team behind the team
In particular, Sanford’s Chad Kurtenbach, M.D., and Verle Valentine, M.D., have directed an impressive and sustained effort that includes the backing of the entire Sanford Orthopedics & Sports Medicine team.
That Sanford team includes Shaina Riggs, M.D., of Sanford Health Brookings Clinic, and Chris Nelson, a nurse practitioner for Sanford Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, both of whom have also provided boots-on-the-ground support.
“We have a whole team to work with throughout our health care system,” said Dr. Valentine, who has served as an SDSU physician for the last nine years. “It might be an orthopedic subspecialist like our foot and ankle surgeon or any other specialist — pulmonologists, cardiologists, neurologists, etc. — that are involved on a periodic basis. They’ve really been instrumental in making sure we take good care of college athletes, not only at SDSU but at other schools within the Sanford footprint.”
The same expertise is available to all ages and abilities — you don’t have to be playing for a championship to seek out health care from that same Sanford team. No matter the kind of athlete you are, there are certain bedrock principles that will apply.
“Prevention is always our No. 1 priority, even during a normal season,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “This year it was accentuated by the fact that we’re not only dealing with injuries and the other typical things, but we are trying to keep athletes from getting exposed to COVID.”
Throughout the fall of 2020, pandemic-related cancellations were a prominent part of the NCAA’s bowl-eligible football season. That carried over to the spring and the FCS season with games — and even entire schedules — called off because of COVID-19.
‘Feels like fall’ on the field
This is the world Drs. Kurtenbach and Valentine have been a part of since March of 2020. It meant this spring 2021 version of college football was going to be a season neither of these Sanford doctors would ever forget regardless of how well the SDSU football team did.
“When you’re on the field, it feels like fall,” Dr. Valentine said. “When you’re not, obviously, it feels like spring. It’s been a challenge for the athletes and the staff more than us but it’s been a real unusual season for everyone.”
The evolving knowledge of the virus made it crucial to have the latest information on treatment and prevention. To that end, the SDSU medical staff has an expert in Sanford Health chief physician Jeremy Cauwels, M.D., who is part of the NCAA COVID-19 advisory board that set nationwide guidelines.
“Dr. Valentine took a lead role in our COVID program,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “He was very instrumental in developing our protocols. We’re also very fortunate that we have Dr. Cauwels to consult. In a lot of ways Sanford has been at the forefront of these testing protocols. It’s a luxury to have your own partners in those kinds of leadership positions.”
When regular testing for COVID-19 became a reality for medical staff and the program, it wasn’t immediately clear how long it would last. As the fall turned to spring and the FCS football season shifted with it, it was abundantly clear testing protocol wasn’t going anywhere.
“The players, coaches, and athletic trainers were all tested a couple times a week,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “If you’ve never been tested for COVID, I can tell you it’s not a super-pleasant experience. It’s one thing to do it once or twice, but these athletes have to be tested over and over again. There’s a psychological component to that and you have to remain mentally strong. You’re wondering every time you get the test – am I going to be the one that pops up positive and disrupts the whole thing?”
Diligent COVID-19 testing and isolating
Using that sound logic as a motivating factor to follow the guidelines, the Jacks have impressively forged ahead through the pandemic and the competition amid the uncertainties. They enter the title game with an 8-1 record with consecutive wins in the postseason over Holy Cross, Southern Illinois and Delaware.
It’s been a week-by-week process that has not been accompanied by the luxury of a few basic assumptions we associated with a football season. Questions like: “Are we actually going to play a game this week?” became part of the narrative.
Perhaps at lower levels, where a “team doctor” is often someone who shows up on game day and then leaves when it’s over, that’s not a big deal. For Dr. Kurtenbach and Dr. Valentine, however, there is everyday involvement that encourages collaboration with SDSU’s own athletic training staff. They become the eyes and ears in many cases, working in coordination with Sanford providers.
“They’ve done a remarkable job,” Dr. Kurtenbach said. “We’ve had minimal disruptions this year. They’ve been very diligent with testing, isolating potential exposures, planning ahead, and following protocols. They’ve done a great job of preventing COVID-19 from having a big effect on the overall season.
“The athletes deserve a lot of credit, too. We’re talking about college kids — they like to socialize and enjoy life. They’ve been asked to sacrifice a lot for the greater good of the football team.”
Part of the payoff has been the season itself. A lot of people who will be tuning in on Sunday will just be watching college kids wearing football equipment. There is a lot more to it for the people who have been looking out for their welfare.
“You get to know all the kids,” Dr. Valentine said. “It’s so fun to see them succeed individually — it’s like they’re part of your family. When you see them go through injury and illness and then get back to performing at high levels, there is lot of pride in seeing what they accomplish.”
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