The leader of ECU's sports medicine program helped write the policy on evacuating stadiums in threatening weather, which attracted some static.
By Justin Boulmay * Photography by Cliff Hollis
Every so often, Katie Walsh Flanagan gets text messages from someone whose life she saved. Surprisingly, they’re not always positive sentiments.
“Really Walsh?” one text said. “We were just about to win here.”
In 2000, Flanagan, the leader of East Carolina University’s sports medicine program, helped write the policy defining when football stadiums must evacuate when there’s a threat of lightning striking the bleachers.
That policy was followed when severe weather caused an almost 90-minute delay in ECU's game against the University of Texas El Paso on Sept. 29, 2012, at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The evacuation order came at 8 p.m. when radar showed a thunderstorm eight miles from the stadium. Within 20 minutes, almost 50,000 people had filed out of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium and the football teams and officials were off the field.
Since serving on the "lightning squad," Flanagan has gotten a few raspberrys from fans who joined the masses in evacuating a stadium.
Fortunately for her, she has a busy day job to keep her occupied. Since 1995, Flannagan has sdirected ECU's athletic trainer program and is also a professor. She’s written two books and recently served on the N.C. Athletics Association Task Force to address concussion awareness in high schools.
She has written policies on lightning safety for both the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) and the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). She’s the third woman to be inducted into the NATA hall of fame.
That’s a lot of accomplishments for someone who didn't want to be an athletic trainer—at least, not until she needed one in college.
Flanagan was on the field hockey team in high school and made her college team. But in just a few weeks she fell off a bike and broke her elbow. Her doctor said she couldn’t play, but her athletic trainer said that she could—if her elbow was taped in such a way that the ligaments would stay tight. It worked, and Flanagan had found her profession.
Today her job is to protect athletes who want to play despite their injuries. “My job is to save them from themselves so they can play tomorrow, and next week, and next year,” Flanagan says.
Teaching by example
Flanagan earned her bachelor’s in physical education at Oregon State, her master’s in physical education from Illinois State University, and her doctorate of education from the University of Southern California.
She also once was the head athletic trainer for the Chicago Power men’s professional soccer team.
She initially resisted becoming a teacher. Her perspective changed when she realized she is teaching every time she explains to a patient why a certain procedure is best for them.
For Flanagan, that's the meaning of teaching: taking complex information and making it accessible to the student.
When she was exploring where to go after Southern Cal, she said East Carolina stood out. Flanagan esd oggrtrf the opportunity to run the program and continue working as an athletic trainer. She is just the second person to lead ECU’s sports medicine program.
“East Carolina, from the minute I got off the plane, fit,” Flanagan says. “Everybody with whom I work is awesome. This suite, with a staff with whom I work, is awesome.”
Flanagan inherited a program had a 47 percent national pass-rate average and had received 27 citations from the Commission on Accreditation on Athletic Training Education (CAATE).
Turning the department around was a team effort, she says. Faculty members blended different types of exams to simulate the CAATE exam. Glen Gilbert, the former chair and dean of the department, obtained a separate lab space for the program and so addressed another CAATE citation.
Flanagan added 21 courses to address the concern that too much content was crammed into existing classes. Since then, the program's pass rate has gone up, Flanagan says.
“Our students are passing the boards at 90–100 percent,” she says, ascribing it to a team effort. “We’ve got three other faculty that are amazing. They’re energetic and they’re passionate and they care. We’ve got 20-some certified trainers that I see on a regular basis (who) all make this program what it is.”
The program is strict at times strict and informal other times. Students who miss a class aren’t allowed to attend that afternoon’s clinical session. Students are on a first-name basis with Flanagan during class discussions on how to act and think like an athletic trainer.
In one class, the point was to demonstrate the orthopedic evaluation of the upper extremity. Flanagan used a fake skeleton to demonstrate proper shoulder angles and ranges of motion. The students split into teams and practiced on each other.
Housed in Scales Field House beside the football stadium, the lab is equipped with purple-cushioned patient beds and equipment. The lab is where some fans were treated for heat stroke in 2012 when the Pirates hosted Appalachian State Universityon a brutally hot Saturday.
'My job is to save (college athletes) from themselves so they can play tomorrow, next week, and next year.'
Katie Walsh Flanagan
Learning by doing
Instead of giving students the answer, Flanagan wants them to figure it out for themselves, says Amber Price, a graduate assistant who has worked with Flanagan for more than a year in class and in clinical settings in Pitt County schools.
“I think she is an amazing teacher that is direct in her teaching methods,” Price says.
“She is so knowledgeable in the field of athletic training. As a person, I think just as highly of her. She is always willing to help and have the positive outlook on any situation.”
Her teaching success was cited when she was inducted into the NCATA hall of fame as well as her leadership in state, regional, and national levels. Equal recognition resulted from her role with CAATE.
“It’s really, really an honor, because I look at the men that are in there and two of the women, and there are people that are just amazing and moving and earth-shaking and have done big, powerful things,” Flanagan says. “To consider that they see me in that category, it’s pretty heavy.”
Flanagan hopes ECU will create an entry-level master’s in athletic training degree program. A textbook she has written is scheduled to be published in June. And she expects to continue getting the occasional “thank you” text for her lightning policy.