Every few years, we gather around our television screens, eyes wide, holding our breath, waiting for the home team to win gold. But for those lucky few who get to be at the heart of the action, it’s an entirely different experience.
Mary Vacala, PA-C, ATC, MSPAS, knows what it means to be front-and-center at these Olympic and Paralympic games. Appointed to the medical staff by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in 1993, she started traveling worldwide with the USA volleyball, basketball, track and field, cycling, tennis and boxing teams.
Truly Inspiring Clientele
“In 2000, I was selected to work with the USA Paralympic women’s basketball team in Sydney, Australia by the USOC,” she explained. It was her first experience working with Paralympic sport, sparking a new passion for sports medicine. “My best friend is a quadriplegic, and, like her, these athletes have taught me that through adversity, your true soul can shine.”
About 4 years ago, Vacala was asked by former Paralympic women’s basketball coach Ron Lykins to join the medical staff of the men’s team. She’s been with the men ever since, taking on the role of head athletic trainer, attending as many practices as her schedule allows and keeping up-to-date on the men’s health and well-being.
“These athletes have changed me forever and made me a better clinician,” she said. “[They] have taught me the real definition of hard work, athleticism, perseverance and teamwork. I will be forever grateful for the experience and friendship.”
A Passion Born in Childhood
Her journey to the Paralympics started as early as childhood, Vacala recalls, when her interest in healthcare started to grow because “my mother encouraged me to pursue the field.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Vacala entered college as an exercise physiology student.
“I started my career in sports medicine as an athletic trainer, but 5 years into my career, I was frustrated and felt I could do more,” said Vacala. She returned to school, both attending and teaching classes while working as a certified athletic trainer (ATC) at Alderson Broaddus University. “I am very fortunate to have been able to work as a head ATC while going to PA school . supervising students and providing sports coverage.”
Vacala moved to Savannah, Ga, once she earned her physician assistant certification. She began her career in orthopedic sports medicine, and the rest is history.
PA Training Is Paramount
Though her title with the Paralympics team is head ATC, Vacala feels that her training as a PA brings an important addition to her athletic care: “The vast majority of our injuries and medical needs tend to tap into my PA experience, and I feel fortunate to be able to offer this to the team.”
Vacala is on-call full time for any medical needs the team may have. When a medical concern arises, the team can reach Vacala via email, text or phone call. She assesses the concerns and determines the appropriate action based on each athlete’s needs. The men on the team are asked to report to Vacala at least once a week on their medical status and condition.
“If I can handle their situation on an individual basis at the time, then I do so,” she said. But if she is unable to get there or the issue cannot wait that long, Vacala sees to it that the athlete is in touch with an appropriate medical professional as soon as possible. “My responsibility is to ensure that the guys are playing injury-free and in a safe environment.”
Before each game, Vacala is in charge of the team’s preparations and taping. During games, she is readily available for any injury that may arise. “Fortunately,” she added, “the team is extremely healthy, and I have had very little to do during the games.”
Traveling Can Be Tough
The pressure is on when the team travels: Long flights mean it’s hard for the men-who are in wheelchairs-to sleep on the plane or use the restroom. Vacala noted that these two obstacles cause higher risks of dehydration and urinary tract infection issues, as well as upper respiratory infections in the team members.
But Vacala is always prepared. “I bring my sports medicine bag fully equipped with tape, padding, braces, TENS unit, diagnostic equipment, US Anti-Doping Agency approved medications, stethoscope, BP cuff, ice bags bandages and wraps,” she said. She also packs the appropriate equipment for pre-existing injuries and illnesses.
Going for the Gold in Rio
This year is particularly exciting for the team and for Vacala. The 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games start in September. The U.S. Paralympics men’s basketball team will go head-to-head with 12 other teams from around the world, aiming for the gold medal.
“I am very excited about Rio,” Vacala said. “Like our athletes, we, the staff, have prepared for four years for this event and are totally committed to this team.” In the past, the men’s team has won 12 medals for the United States, including seven gold, one silver and four bronze.
“I can no doubt say that this team is by far the most unique in their camaraderie, dedication and focus with one common goal-a gold medal for the USA!” she declared.
Outside of the Paralympics men’s basketball team, Vacala works as a full-time physician assistant at Chatham Orthopedics Association in Savannah. She most recently began the co-ownership of an urgent care clinic with two of her former PA students.
In 2008, Vacala was awarded the Distinguished Fellow Award from the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) and has authored several publications. With her work as a PA and her dedication to the team, Vacala is still able to find balance.
“I am able to touch [patients’] lives for a snapshot in time and hopefully make a difference that will impact them, for that moment they are seeking medical attention and beyond,” she said.