Next Woman Up: Kelsey Henderson, a member of the inaugural class of the NFL’s Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative

Women are rising up the ranks throughout professional football, gaining positions of power in a field that has long been dominated by men. We are seeing more women breaking barriers in this game, but what issues are outside the headlines? Who are the women shaping and influencing the NFL today? Answering those questions is the goal of the Next Woman Up series. While the Q&As discussion is edited and condensed for clarity, this is a forum for women who have the skills to share experiences in their own words. Without further ado, we introduce:

Kelsey Henderson

Position: A fourth-year student at Meharry Medical College who recently completed a month-long clinical rotation with the Tennessee Titans medical staff through the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative. On the same subject : Outside the Huddle: Sipsey Valley holds the cheerleaders.

It happened quickly. I heard about it in April when Meharry announced that the NFL was partnering with four Historically Black Colleges and University medical schools for a program that will help increase diversity within sports medicine in the professional field. Part of that is exposing medical students very early in their careers to that experience.

I was a third year at the time and most of us did not know that this program was for the 2022 NFL season, so we really congratulated the second years and encouraged them to apply and take this opportunity before they sit. Then I received an email that said, “We know you are applying for orthopedic surgery residencies this year. We are interviewing applicants to be part of the pilot program. Let us know if you are interested.” That was a great surprise.

I was a Kinesiology major at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, so I always say that I learned medicine through the language of sports and human behavior, so this opportunity was great for me. I wanted to get this experience to learn about sports medicine from a doctor’s perspective.

I had been recruited by the Tennessee Titans, so it was about four months from when I found out about the program to my first day with the Titans.

What are some of the things you did and/or learned during the month-long rotation?

I spent time with the doctors associated with the group, including Dr. Thomas Byrd and Dr. Damon Petty. I knew that Dr. Byrd worked with the group before I started touring. He is a great person in our industry, so I was scared but happy when I found out that he would be one of the doctors I would work with. In addition to them, I worked with the training staff – physical therapy, athletic training, nutrition, etc. – so I was able to see and learn about all the different aspects of the Titans staff.

The actual date is divided between the time and the performance of Dr. Byrd or Dr. Petty with the Tennessee Orthopedic Alliance in addition to his work with the Titans. We saw their patients, including the players, from 7 am until the Titans started practice at the facility. We went to practice and learned about contact injuries, and we saw the athletic training staff working at practice and they helped them a little bit. After training, the injured players would be examined in the doctor’s office and we would help and treat the players who were injured or recovering.

So this was a hands-on experience then?

Yes, absolutely. I was able to see what the doctors did every day, and the teaching team was very welcoming. In medical school, we were sent to physical therapy but I didn’t get to see what the physical therapist did once I was sent. With the Titans, they showed me exactly how they do the treatment plan and schedule, including the difference in what it looks like for a patient returning to work or a professional athlete returning to the field. They allowed me to be hands-on with the experience and learn what each department does and how it contributes to the health of the players.

I got to go to the Colts-Titans game on my last day of rotation. It was bittersweet because we won but it was the end of my rotation, so I was battling a lot of emotions. This game is very different from the daily work because the workers often evaluate the person very quickly. Usually, doctors see the patient the day after the injury. On the day of the game, you get to see the process of repair and the injury itself, so you get the perspective of the player but also you have the perspective of seeing as a doctor to know what caused the injury and that the injury may not have happened. you examine the player. It was really interesting to be there and see everything that was going on around me. There is a lot of intensity from a medical standpoint, and you should be able to hone your skills while the fans are screaming and the cheerleaders are going to your left. It’s an amazing place you’re in, but at the same time, the seriousness of the work and paying attention comes first.

No one was to be carried away believing. I was watching during the game, but let’s say a player got injured during the first half. That person was examined at half-time, and we were getting the impression that everyone had something that looked like less than tissue damage. When the adrenaline wears off, there are times when the players notice that their hand hurts or something, and we check them after the game. I was able to help with some of these things.

How good is the last day for you. What was your favorite moment from the tour?

The day of the game. I knew it would be fun, and it was great to see players who were injured when I first toured now playing in the game. I saw them doing their treatment and rehabilitation to get them healthy and able to play, so it came full circle. The training staff is quick to respond to the needs of the players.

I also met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL chief medical officer Allen Sills, and they wanted to know about my experience and ways they could improve it. It was great to see this kind of investment in making this special pump.

That’s great. And what’s your biggest takeaway from the past month?

This program only emphasizes the importance of exposure when it comes to sub-specialties such as orthopedics. I got the first exposure as a first-year medical student, so it helped me plan my time on how to become a candidate for residency. Now getting exposure to not only sports medicine but professional sports in my fourth year really gave me that which you don’t get from medical school training.

Also, creating relationships and seeing the culture of what it’s like to work in professional sports, it’s a real place but everyone was welcoming and eager for me to be there and learn. That’s the thing that made me happy the most. Everyone with Titans was serious about their work, but the culture was one of the most crowded and engaging workplaces I’ve seen. There is a lot of respect between people and departments, people used each other as sounding boards for their expertise, and there was a lot of humility. I love the team spirit and it was great to see the kind of spirit that exists at the professional level. It also taught me that this is the kind of culture I expect in a residency program, so they set the bar really high. If you love what you do and the players know that the medical staff is invested in their health, it makes a good environment for everyone to be in.

Before this round, did you consider working in professional sports as a career in orthopedics?

I knew that this was a career path, but I didn’t know that it would allow me to enter. There didn’t seem to be a clear path for people interested in working for a professional sports team. I was presented with this opportunity to work in sports during my undergrad. I had an adjunct professor at UT who invited me to shadow his family medicine at the hospital, and he also worked for the Knoxville Bears hockey team. It was my first experience seeing sports medicine up close, and I was able to see the training and rehab facilities. I thought it was good, but it never occurred to me that it was something I could do, too.

Now that I have gone through this experience, I have really integrated all the disciplines in sports medicine and look at them in the field of orthopedic surgery. I am very busy with this being a career path now, especially after seeing that Dr. Petty and Dr. How Byrd can help professional athletes and people who just want to do everyday tasks. They cover a wide range of people but all have to do with quality of life.

Do you have any mentors? And what advice did you receive from them?

Meharry does not have an in-house orthopedic program, so I had to rely on several doctors who went through our program. Dr. Wayne Johnson gave me a view of what I am doing or what I should be doing to prepare for the stay. Dr. Joe Minchew at Duke gave me perspective as a first-generation medical student and helped me learn what goes into being a great doctor beyond what I learned in the classroom. Dr. Tonya Dixon, Dr. Nichelle Enata, Dr. Kirsten Ross is one of my mentors.

They are my toolbox of people who support and guide me. The most common advice they give me is to not lose myself — like my intuition and the things that make me different that allow me to connect with my patients — in the process. They also encouraged me to humble myself enough to ask for help, and as you can see from the number of people I spoke to, I took it to heart.

I really believe that you should have mentors at every level because having a resident, friend, attendee or someone in a different practice environment can give you a different perspective that can help you make informed decisions.

I read that you created the Meharry Mentoring Program. How did that come about?

One of the goals of our student government organization was to have a formal education system. Many organizations have their own counseling process, and our school has tried several times but was rejected. But during the epidemic, people became more available so students were able to interact with people in the workplace. We matched over 200 students to entertainers during the first year and a half of the program. I have already resigned from the position of program director because this year has been very busy, but being the chairman is still fulfilling.

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