Medically, they're ahead of the game

Physicals: Volunteer doctors from the Baltimore County Medical Association help student athletes get their exams out of the way before school starts.

August 17, 1999|By Melody Holmes | Melody Holmes,SUN STAFF

Walking down a familiar, locker-lined hallway, Shaun Mooney is reminded of history classes and lunch periods past. With a few weeks to go before the homeroom bell rings, his visit to Baltimore County's Lansdowne High School makes him a little early for school. But he isn't just eager to get a head start on the inevitable math and science homework to come.

A senior this fall, Shaun, 17, has been a soccer and lacrosse player his entire high school career. To get the necessary sports physical to play on both teams, Shaun has taken a short trip to school for a money-saving $10 equivalent to the checkup he could get from his own physician for $50 or more. This is especially helpful for him because he has to pay for his own medical bills. Besides, he says, "It's good to see all your friends."

By 6 p.m., when the physicals begin, the line of waiting students has grown to a moderate-sized, restless mob in the hall of Lansdowne High. The girls -- future cheerleaders and soccer players -- go first.

"Privacy is not the best in the school setting. We try to cut down on some of the voyeurism that occurs at that age," says Elizabeth Lehmann, administrative coordinator for the Baltimore County Medical Association, which provides volunteer doctors for the physicals.

While the girls are being weighed -- the second of seven parts to the physical -- Shaun sits on a makeshift bench near some exhibits of student art, waiting his turn. While he sits, he's hassled by a persistent admirer, the younger sister of one of his buddies.

In a little less than an hour, the girls have cleared station two, and the boys are being weighed and measured. Shaun is a bit surprised to learn that he's grown four inches in the last year. He and other guys in line compare weights and heights -- something the girls who'd gone ahead of them wouldn't dream of doing. That would be too embarrassing. In fact, pretty much everything is embarrassing when you're in high school.

The next steps are a blood pressure check followed by a vision test; Shaun's vision turns out to be 20/20. So far, there are no problems with his exam, just as he says he'd anticipated.

But at the next station, the wait becomes a little longer. This is where motor skills are tested, and there are only three orthopedic specialists on hand to examine at least 100 students. The BCMA doctors help with the "pre-participation physicals" for the fee of no more than a free meal. The medical association has been providing the $10 sports physicals since 1993, with the cooperation of the Baltimore County Public Schools. The $10 fee is given back to the school to cover the purchase of the necessary medical supplies for the physicals, as well as athletic supplies and other expenses.

Every year, the county schools choose five schools as sites for the physicals. The program is intended for the athletes who attend the particular schools, but according to Lehmann, "There are no qualifying or disqualifying factors."

This is why there are so many students crowding Lansdowne's halls, their body heat overpowering what little air conditioning there is. The scarcity of seats combined with the heat makes the atmosphere less than comfortable.

While waiting for the motor skills test, Shaun -- the quietest among the rowdy group of stocky teen-agers who make up his circle of friends -- snickers at the guys' jokes about other students on the makeshift exam tables covered in white sheets in an art classroom.

Girls leaving the motor skills exam endure the whistles and catcalls of the testosterone-charged group waiting outside the art room door. Even though the wait is long, Shaun can at least leave right after his exam is complete, unlike the doctors giving them.

"I've sat around and done histories and physicals for six hours. There were a lot of students, but not a lot of doctors," says Dr. John Gordon, an orthopedic surgeon. He says it helps to have parents volunteer for training to help take the temperatures and blood pressures of all the waiting students.

The BCMA's physicals program is "a cheaper and easier way for students to get their histories," Gordon says. But he warns, "A sports physical does not take the place of routine histories and physicals by the primary care physician."

As 8 p.m. approaches, Shaun is at the end of his physical, getting his form signed in one last spot after going through another part of the exam that required the presence of a chaperon. The BCMA takes such precautions with its doctors to avoid student allegations of sexual misconduct. By this time, Shaun is so relieved to be finished, he nearly walks off without his completed exam form, his whole reason for spending more than two of his last precious hours of summer at school.

With the signature he needs, Shaun jogs off down the hall, calling for a buddy to wait up. Because he's spent most of the evening surrounded by the teachers and coaches who would shortly fill his days, he wasn't about to let this August night go to waste.

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