During his tenure of more than 20 years as the team physician for the Los Angeles Rams, Dr. Clarence Shields, Jr. cared for some of the best-trained and physically gifted athletes in the world. Doctors that are well versed in the science of sports medicine must augment the training that is required to withstand a grueling season of constant, punishing physical contact.

Shields and his team of trainers were charged with preparing the players to be able to perform each Sunday, to monitor the condition of these wounded warriors and at times withhold them from playing. He saw a great many injuries over the course of his long career, and upon his retirement from professional football, began to focus on the plight of high school athletes.

Shields, now an orthopedic surgeon at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Westchester, established a foundation called Team HEAL (Helping Enrich Athletes Lives) in 1994. Team HEAL was developed in response to the diminished athletic budgets and increased injuries among high school athletes. The program is designed to provide full-time certified Team HEAL athletic trainers and medical treatment to inner-city high schools in the Los Angeles area.

Team HEAL assists these schools in obtaining proper physical training and medical treatment for high school athletes. More than 3,000 students have received proper medical attention since the program’s inception, a fact that makes Shields very proud.

“It’s very gratifying to know how many kids we’ve been able to help over the years,” he said.

Last month, Shields and a team of doctors provided free orthopedic and internal medicine examinations, as well as dental and vision screenings to student athletes of Carson, Banning, Manual Arts High and Crenshaw High schools at his Westchester facility.

The medical team, which includes a cardiologist and a neurologist, also performs cardiac examinations to diagnose underlying conditions that may have previously gone undetected.

“We screen kids once a year to make sure that it’s safe for them to play,” the orthopedic surgeon said.

Recently, Shields has been in discussions with local schools to see if there are young athletes who might benefit from Team HEAL examinations.

“We have talked to the football coaches at Westchester High School about what we’ve been doing at other schools,” he said.

The need to provide quality preventive treatment to student athletes has been magnified in recent years. According to a 2007 report from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there were 20 sports-related deaths in 2006. The report found that out of those 20 deaths, five young athletes, from 11 to 17 years old, died of heat stroke and only one of those deaths was directly related to the game itself.

During one series of examinations of the high school athletes, Shields and his associates were able to identify two athletes with heart murmurs.

“This is why these types of examinations are important,” Shields stressed.

On May 31st, a 15-year-old Orange County football player, Kyle Bradshaw, collapsed and died after practice. And earlier this year, Megan Myers, a 14-year-old high school freshman at Dana Hills High School, collapsed during a cross-country race. It was subsequently discovered that she died of heart inflammation.

Perhaps the death that still resonates with basketball fans, particularly in local communities, is the tragic death of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount University basketball star who died on March 4th, 1990 during a West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game. An autopsy revealed that he died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart muscle disorder.

Dr. Michael Rubottom, Internal Medicine and chief of staff of Marina del Rey Hospital, feels that the type of screenings that Shields and his team of physicians are performing can be equally helpful to players that may have serious ailments as well as those with minor conditions.

“Identifying an athlete with a heart murmur is usually about one in 100,000,” Rubottom said. “These screenings can also be very good for picking up the day-to-day things like asthma and a variety of other things.”

Westchester High football coach Adrian Ivory feels that the services that Team HEAL provides can help athletes who sustain recurring injuries get the care that they normally might not have access to, which could result in enhanced performance on the football field, basketball court or baseball diamond.

“We’ve had some athletes who have had these nagging injuries with knees or ankles,” said the coach. “Good preventive and follow-up care could help them heal a lot quicker.”

Providing student-athletes with proper equipment has also been a major focus of Team HEAL. Crenshaw High now has a completely renovated fitness gym thanks to a generous donation from a former Crenshaw football player through the foundation.

In addition to providing physical examinations, Team HEAL is involved in introducing students to careers outside of sports, including sports medicine and athletic training. In 2005, Team HEAL received approval from the Los Angeles Unified School District to offer a science elective sports medicine class at Crenshaw High, where students can pursue careers in sports medicine, by studying anatomy and medical terminology.

“We want to emphasize academics as well as sports,” says Shields. “Sports is a way to accomplish things in life, but athletes have to be prepared for life once their playing careers are over.”

Rubottom applauded Shields’ foundation for its work with athletes who may not usually have modern athletic equipment or access to expert medical care.

“It seems like a very ambitious, compassionate program,” he said. The more that local general practitioners learn about programs like Team HEAL, perhaps more would volunteer their services as well, Rubottom added.

Fundraising helps to offset the foundation’s operational costs and the majority of the doctors and trainers work on a volunteer basis.

Shields hopes to expand the program to other schools in the future, depending on its success in raising money.

“There are a lot of kids who have sustained injuries who do not have the facilities that allow them to recuperate properly or obtain the preventive care that is very crucial to their well-being, on and off the field,” said Shields. “We’re trying to do our part in helping these young athletes be the best that they can be.”