Estelle Saenz - Athletic Training Student, Spotlight photo

Athletic Training Students Practice Skills
with Patients at Summer Internships

As a medical intern at the American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive, Jessica Aquino (shown above) was on call around the clock—sharing a dormitory and attending classes with the young dancers, treating everything from sprained ankles to homesickness.

As an intern at two physical therapy clinics in Quito, Ecuador, Estelle Saenz spent a month observing and treating patients with spine, ankle, and knee injuries, giving her the chance to practice new skills.

Saenz photo
Estelle Saenz practices spine boarding
during a summer internship.
Aquino and Saenz, juniors at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, were among the many students in the athletic training program who gained hands-on experience in the field by completing summer internships.

“We strongly encourage students to find additional experiences over the summer to expand their exposure to different patient populations,” said Elizabeth Swann, Ph.D., ATC, associate professor at the college and athletic training program director. “Both Jessica and Estelle did exactly that. They worked very hard to find a unique setting that would take them ‘beyond the classroom.’”

Aquino, a member of the college’s Undergraduate Honors Program, spent three weeks working with children and teens at the dance intensive hosted by the University of Alabama.

“I would get calls in the middle of the night about upset stomachs or ‘my ankle hurts,’ and sometimes I would get serious calls. I don’t believe I sat through a full class without getting a call for help somewhere,” she said.

Those calls included everything from allergic reactions, dehydration, and stomach flu to tendonitis and broken bones. After attending classes all day, Aquino helped students ice down their aches and pains at evening “ice parties.” She also helped with the evaluation of orthopedic injuries.

"With this experience, I learned different skills such as how to talk to parents, how to educate children about proper hygiene and good eating habits, and how to deal with different types of doctors,” Aquino said. “I saw how the clinical setting is different from a high-school setting.”

“I learned many life lessons that I will take with me,” said Aquino, who plans to pursue a doctoral degree in physical therapy.

As a former soccer player, Saenz became interested in athletic training and physical therapy after suffering knee injuries as a teenager that sent her to the sidelines.

“When I was going through rehab, I was interested in the different techniques and technology they used,” she said. “I always loved playing sports. Now, I like being in athletic training because I can still be around it.”

She spent a month as an intern at Instituto de Cirugía Vertebral and Rehabilitar, physical therapy clinics in Quito, the capital of Ecuador.

“I mostly observed,” Saenz said. “At the same time, they asked me to show them a little bit of what we learned here so I was able to teach as well. I also performed some treatments. If someone needed an ultrasound, a massage, or stretching, they asked me.”

Saenz split her time between the two clinics, one of which focused solely on spinal injuries. She saw a variety of patients, including a toddler with a severe case of scoliosis, or curvature of the spine.

“It was hard to treat the young patients who can’t communicate. It was an area I struggled with a little bit,” Saenz said. “It was interesting to see the different types of injuries and how they were treated. We had talked about a lot of these injuries in class.

“I had never worked with neurological patients before. Some had problems with balance. One patient had cerebral palsy, and we worked with her on muscular control. She improved a lot during the time I was there.”

Saenz wants to pursue a career that combines physical therapy and athletic training and possibly work for the U.S. Armed Forces (her father works for the U.S. Army and is stationed in Ecuador). Saenz has worked with NSU’s women’s swim team as well as high-school sports teams.

While physical therapy focuses on rehabilitation, “in athletic training, we do a little bit of everything,” she said. “We do rehab, but we also try to help athletes prevent injuries. We tape them, we make sure they stretch, and we provide treatments and electrical stimulation.”

“Working at the clinics in Ecuador helped me to better understand the spine, the muscles, and how they function,” she said. “Actually performing a treatment is much different than learning in the classroom. The internship helped the class as well because we talk about the injuries and treatments and everything we’ve seen.”

In addition to summer-internship opportunities, athletic training students are required to obtain more than 1,000 clinical hours as part of their academic program.

“On campus and during the traditional semester, students are assigned a clinical rotation and preceptor/supervisor to work with and practice what we teach in the didactic setting,” Swann said. “When they get the chance to practice what they’ve learned, such as an ankle evaluation, it builds their confidence and they will become better medical professionals. The end goal is for these students to have experience treating injuries so that they will be prepared at their first job as certified athletic trainers.”