No ambulance on site at Pinellas football game raises concerns

Largo High’s Taj Taylor lies on the field Friday after taking a knee to the head. There was a doctor but no ambulance at the game.

Courtesy of Melissa Bonacci

Largo High’s Taj Taylor lies on the field Friday after taking a knee to the head. There was a doctor but no ambulance at the game.

The haze that enveloped Largo High School's Taj Taylor is still persistent. He cannot shake the headaches or the sensitivity to noise and light.

Taylor, a sophomore defensive back, is slowly recovering after a wicked hit toward the end of Friday's preseason football game at Dunedin knocked him unconscious. Of greater concern to Taylor's parents is the response time by paramedics, who were not present at the game because of a shift in budget priorities for the Pinellas County public school district.

"My son took a very hard hit, and I know he will eventually get better," said Taylor's mother, Melissa Bonacci. "But the fact that there were no paramedics or an ambulance there is disturbing. I know it is to a lot of other parents, too. It's something that needs to change."

Bonacci has started a petition to have an ambulance and paramedics on site at all football games in Pinellas County.

"This is a situation that could have been a lot of worse," said Bonacci, whose son was diagnosed with a severe concussion and traumatic brain injury. "I felt helpless and just want something good to come out of it."

Pinellas County athletic director Nick Grasso said there are two certified trainers (one for each team) and a medical physician (primary or orthopedic) at every football game. Schools can have ambulances at games if they pay for them. That can be expensive for cash-strapped schools, costing about $450 or more per game.

Trainers and physicians are provided through a program funded by area hospitals, which Grasso said was started in 2001 by former county athletic director Bob Hosack.

"We have very trained, skilled trainers and doctors at every game who are providing great care for our students," Grasso said. "The medical staff at the games can determine whether a paramedic needs to be called."

Taylor was injured when he went in low and from the side to make a tackle and was struck in the head by the knee of a Dunedin running back. He fell and was unresponsive for nearly 10 minutes.

"I've not seen a hit like that one in 37 years of coaching," Largo coach Rick Rodriguez said. "At first, you're thinking of the worst because you see a kid not moving and hope it's not any kind of paralysis."

Both teams agreed to end the game, and Taylor eventually was taken to St. Joseph's Trauma Center in Tampa.

Bonacci said the paramedics' response time was 15-20 minutes.

"That's where I have the issue," she said. "My son is lying on the ground struggling to breathe and with a faint pulse. It was very traumatic."

Grasso countered that the response time was about five minutes, which is average for most paramedic calls.

"I know the staff that was there did everything right," Grasso said. "When someone has a loved one that is involved in any kind of accident, everything seems to move in slow motion and those who are working can't move fast enough.

"I think we have a strong system in place that fares well compared to other counties."

In contrast, Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said there is emergency medical staff at every football — varsity and JV — game and two paramedics with each ambulance. Costs are paid by district funds.

Taylor, who could be sidelined more than a month, was not the only bay area football player to sustain a severe concussion in the past week. On Thursday, Hudson junior varsity player Austin Thomas was taken to the hospital via helicopter after hitting his head in the fourth quarter of a preseason game against Springstead. He never lost consciousness but sprained his neck and was released over the weekend. Thomas could return to the field in about a month.

Hudson coach Mark Kantor said in a perfect world, an athletic trainer, ambulance and orthopedic specialist would be at every game.

"Those three things should be the top priority," Kantor said.

Pasco County lets each school determine its own policy with paramedics based on the relationships and needs of each community, county athletic director Phil Bell said.

Six of the county's 13 schools — including Hudson — have full-time athletic trainers. Some schools have emergency medical teams at games, and some paramedics wait for their next call at football stadiums.

Once he is cleared by doctors, Taylor said he plans to continue playing football, though he will have to convince his parents.

"The situation on the field was scary," he said. "I've never had anything like that happen to me before. But I still want to get out there and play. I love football too much to give it up."

Staff writers Matt Baker and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com or on Twitter @BobbyHomeTeam.

No ambulance on site at Pinellas football game raises concerns 08/26/13 [Last modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 11:00pm]

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