Rewriting the Student-Athlete Care Playbook

Head Team Physician Adapts as Pandemic Persists
By Annie Dankelson | Photo by John T. Consoli

Dr. Yvette Rooks has treated patients ranging from newborns to centenarians. Yet she still couldn’t have anticipated the unique challenges that the novel coronavirus would unleash.

Maryland Athletics’ head team physician and assistant director for sports medicine in the University Health Center had to shift her focus from typical training, such as physicals and injury prevention, to pandemic protection for hundreds of student-athletes—a job that’s required constant evolution heading into a fall without sports.

“We really had to become COVID central, because everybody was looking at us, at sports medicine, for all their answers,” she says. “And we’re not infectious disease doctors, but we’ve become that.”

A New York native, Rooks admired her own doctor’s instruments during childhood checkups and volunteered as a candy striper at her neighborhood hospital, then went on to earn her medical degree at the State University of New York Upstate in Syracuse. She completed her residency at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where the former SUNY Albany volleyball player discovered a passion for sports medicine.

She served as the primary care sports medicine doctor at UMD from 1998-2008, then became head team physician until 2016. After a few years as chief medical officer for Rutgers University athletics, she returned to Maryland last fall as part of its transition to an autonomous model of patient-centered care for student-athletes, meaning the medical staff operates independently of the athletic department and as part of the University Health Center. Her hire completed the implementation of recommendations from two external reviews following the June 2018 death of football player Jordan McNair.

Just a few months into her new role, COVID-19 hit, with the shutdown of March Madness one harbinger of the upheaval to come. She and her team quickly set to work developing new policies and procedures, including requiring face coverings and physical distancing in team gatherings. They set up virtual meetings with student-athletes, coaches and parents to encourage communication. Testing took place weekly over the summer, and anyone who tests positive is automatically connected with a behavioral health consultant to help with anxiety. A cardiologist, a neurologist and other specialists are on board to address any related symptoms.

“We are incredibly fortunate to have (Rooks) on our team as we navigate these unprecedented times,” Athletic Director Damon Evans says. “She provides valuable insight and guidance.”

Even with the Big Ten Conference’s postponement of fall competition and plenty of questions about the winter and spring seasons, she’s keeping a transparent, open-door policy for student-athletes and her staff.

“As physicians, we always have to be on our guard because just as the world changes every day, so does medicine,” Rooks says. “This won’t be our last pandemic, but at least we’ll have a playbook on this.”


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