Life-Saving Experience

George Curtis'dedication and experience saved a fellow faculty member's life and invigorated the athletic training program at BYU.

By Jim Catalano

Jim Catalano is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 11.8, November 2001,

It was just another day at the Brigham Young University Fieldhouse. Faculty members were gathered in the gymnasium for their traditional lunch-time pickup basketball game, while Head Athletic Trainer George Curtis, ATC, LRPT, was hanging out in the football office having just concluded a meeting with NFL scouts.

"I was talking to the football secretary when Swim Coach Tim Powers burst through the door and said, 'We need help, call 911,'" Curtis remembers. "Then he saw me and said, 'George, one of the faculty members had a heart attack on the court, we think he's dying--come help!'"

Curtis raced to the gym, where Kay Campbell, Professor of Elementary Education, had collapsed on the floor. "There were about 15 people standing around, but none of them knew CPR," Curtis says. "He still had gum in his mouth, and he wasn't in full arrest. So I rolled him over, cleared his mouth, and by the time we rolled him back he was in full arrest. So I started CPR."

Within a few seconds, he was joined by Head Baseball Coach Vance Law, whose office was nearby. "George was doing both compression and breathing, so I said 'I got you, George,' and jumped in and started doing compression," Law says. "George did the breathing, and we kept Campbell viable until the paramedics showed up--it was about four or five minutes, but it seemed a lot longer."

The paramedics used an external defibrillator to restart Dr. Campbell's heart before taking him away in an ambulance. Curtis and Law found out later that Campbell had survived and had a pacemaker implanted. "I was there within less than a minute after he hit the deck, and I had my hands on him when he hit full arrest," Curtis says. "But I don't think he would've made it unless we were there."

For his role in saving Campbell's life, Curtis has been recognized with Training & Conditioning's Above the Call Award. But even without his life-saving action, Curtis would be more than worthy of this award. A 1971 graduate of Southern Utah University, Curtis came to BYU in 1985 after serving as the head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Express of the USFL. He was previously the head athletic trainer at Santa Ana College for 13 years, where he also served as strength and conditioning coach. He was a 1996 recipient of the National Athletic Training Service Award and a 1999 recipient of the Outstanding Football Athletic Trainer Award.

Since coming to BYU, Curtis has strengthened the school's curriculum program, which was on probation with the NATA when he arrived. "The school needed to make some changes, and they hired George to help fix things," says BYU Assistant Athletic Trainer Kevin Morris, ATC. "With the help of a few professors, he took it from a program on probation to where it is now--one of the top programs in the country. He has almost a 100 percent success rate for helping students find jobs."

Morris first met Curtis as a student athletic trainer. "I was practicing my tape jobs with another student," Morris says. "After a few days of doing that, George came out, took off his socks and shoes, hopped up on the table, and said, 'Okay, start taping. 'I remember that if I got a wrinkle, he would make me cut it off and start over. I said 'We're wasting tape,'but he said, 'You'll never tape for me here unless you learn to do it right. 'He took the time with us when he saw that we were willing to put in the time, and he really served as a mentor to us. I think you'd hear hundreds of similar stories from students who have been through here."

Besides serving as Head Athletic Trainer, Curtis works with BYU's football team, where he's also known for going the extra mile. "If a kid needs a treatment at 11:30 p.m., or at 5 a.m., he's there," says Barry Lamb, Safeties Coach and Special Teams Coordinator for the BYU football team, who has worked with Curtis for eight seasons. "He's always trying new things--we had a problem with cramps for a few years so he checked out using the pickle juice thing. He's always calling around to find out about the latest advances. It's great for the coaching staff--we don't have to worry about the players'treatments. If there's a way to get the players ready, he'll get them ready."

One thing that may contribute to Curtis' rapport with athletes is his own medical history. By his count, he's undergone approximately 50 surgeries or other procedures--the result of participation in football, wrestling, boxing, baseball, and track and field, plus injuries resulting from a car accident. "I have an artificial left shoulder joint and an artificial right knee,"Curtis says. "I've had lots of injuries, but I've never missed a day's work due to injury or illness. When I've had trauma, I'll have the surgery on a holiday, weekend, or summer vacation. But I haven't had anything done for a year and a half."

It was the episode with Campbell that spurred Curtis to get his latest procedure, a knee replacement. "I was having a very difficult time getting down to the ground," he says. "I thought, 'If I have to do this again with one of my kids, I have to be able to do this better. 'That prompted my decision to get total knee done--to be better prepared."

Curtis says his tally of surgeries hasn't necessarily made him softer toward injured athletes. "It's not very often that they can get away with whining that they can't do this or that," he says. "I've had most of the things they've had, and I know that you can deal with them and live with them and still perform. So I don't have too much more sympathy, but I have more understanding."

In his efforts to provide care, evaluation, and empathy to his students and student-athletes, Curtis hasn't overlooked the needs of his professional peers. In fact, he has contributed to his field at state, regional, and national levels. He's in his second term as President of the Utah Athletic Trainers' Association (UATA). Last year, he spearheaded the passage of a bill in the Utah legislature that recognizes athletic training as a healthcare profession. "We had no licensure ability or exemption laws that allowed us to practice," he says. "So I worked with Senator John Valentine, a former emergency medical technician at BYU events, to develop a bill that allows certain certified athletic trainers to provide athletic training services without being licensed by the state."

Senate Bill 113 amended the existing laws to include certain athletic trainers in the category of persons who may engage in their profession without a license. It specified that in order for an athletic trainer to qualify for this exemption, he or she must: (1) be certified by the National Athletic Trainers'Association; (2) be employed with an educational institution, a professional sports organization, or an amateur sports organization; and (3) provide athletic training to athletes of the educational institution or sports organization to which the person is employed and such services are within the scope of the individual's certification.

The bill passed in the house with little opposition. "The thing that made this bill so important is that it exempted us from having to be licensed like other professionals such as physical therapists and chiropractors," Curtis says. "The bill also defined for the first time what an athletic trainer is, and what their qualifications are in Utah."

Morris credits Curtis' interpersonal skills with paving the way for the bill's passage. "We've been trying to do that for years," Morris says, "and through his contacts and associations, and just the way he is--a good guy who's not afraid to talk to anyone--George got the senator to come down on the sidelines with us to see what we do, and also to visit some high schools to see what athletic trainers do there. After that, the senator said, 'We've got to get this legislation passed.'"

To raise the profile of athletic trainers in the state, Curtis and fellow UATA members Bill Bean, ATC, and Lisa Walker, ATC, produced a video that would outline what athletic trainers do. The goals were to identify who athletic trainers are, promote the profession with some well-known people talking about the need and value of the athletic trainer, and highlight the need for them in high schools. They hired BYU Motion Pictures to produce it, and got ex-BYU quarterbacks Steve Young and Ty Detmer to appear in it.

Eighteen months later, the video, titled Utah Certified Athletic Trainers: Advocates of Student Health, received the NATA's 2001 Educational Multimedia Award for Video ATC Non-Commercial Production.

Curtis continues to thrive in the ever-changing field of athletic training, which is no doubt a factor in his ongoing enthusiasm toward the profession. "The thing I like most about athletic training is no two days are ever the same," he says. "You have different sports at different times of the year, with potential for different injuries. And even if two different people could have the same injury, they could heal at a different rate. So everything's got different variables, and that allows you to keep your mind sharp and keep alert so you can prepare and do well."