Cody Pannell, physical therapist, works with patient Dominic Jefferson of Jackson.
Cody Pannell, physical therapist, works with patient Dominic Jefferson of Jackson.
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UMMC PT in the pros: Sports resident delivers care at Saints camp

Published on Monday, September 10, 2018

By: Ruth Cummins

When Cody Pannell performs physical therapy on professional football players, he has one main focus: Get the player back on the field.

What he does to achieve that isn’t necessarily what he would do in a physical therapy clinic, where “the goal might be to return a patient to playing with their grandchildren, or going for long walks,” said Pannell, who just completed his physical therapy sports residency at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“With professional athletes, their recovery is about returning them to a physical career. You don’t want to just get them healthy and pain-free, and then put them on the football field and see what they can do,” Pannell said “At the end of the day, it all boils down to outcomes. You want to reach that as efficiently as you can. You have to modify their point of care.”

Physical therapist Cody Pannell divides his time between seeing patients at the University Pavilion and teaching at the School of Health Related Professions.
Cody Pannell, physical therapist, divides his time between seeing patients at the University Physicians Pavilion and teaching in the School of Health Related Professions.

During the month of August, Pannell had a dream assignment: Helping to deliver therapy and rehabilitation care to the New Orleans Saints as part of a first-even component of the sports residency program. He spent long days on and off the field giving players physical therapy and rehab care, not just for current injuries, but to prevent future ones.

“The pay is the experience. It’s priceless,” Pannell said. This fall, he’s dividing his time between the PT clinic at the University Pavilion and teaching as an assistant professor of physical therapy in UMMC’s School of Health Related Professions.

“It’s a completely different environment” in the Saints pre-season camp, he said. “Being there lets me see a different side of things. I’m learning about the business side and the management side.”

Pannell is a 2010 Mississippi College graduate in exercise physiology. He worked as a personal trainer in Flowood before completing his doctor of physical therapy degree from SHRP in 2016. He began his PT residency in June 2017.

It was a unique relationship between SHRP and the Saints organization that paved the way for a sports resident to rotate at pre-season camp. Beau Lowery, the Saints’ director of sports medicine, received his bachelor’s and doctor of physical therapy from SHRP.

Beau Lowery, left, the Saints’ director of sports medicine, is an alumnus from the School of Health Related Professions
Beau Lowery, left, the Saints’ director of sports medicine, is an alumnus of the School of Health Related Professions.

A major component of August training is rehabilitation, Lowery said. “We bring in college athletic training students, and we have about 40 more players than we do during the regular season. Having a physical therapy student, especially a UMMC sports medicine resident, to come in not only uses the knowledge they gain in PT school, but they get to see what it looks like on this side of sports medicine and rehabilitation on a professional level.”

Pannell helped Lowery with players on injured reserve who had undergone surgery and need long-term rehabilitation. “He and I discussed the nuances and modalities that clinics don’t have because of reimbursement issues. We’re seeing these guys two time a day until they’re back on the field.”

Pannell’s days started early.

“At 5:30 a.m., I get ready for practices, prepare the training room for ice and recovery, and check the stock,” Pannell said a couple of weeks before his internship ended. “Do we have enough compression garments? Is the equipment calibrated properly? I get IVs for post practice and make sure the players have what they need pre- and post-practice for dehydration and from a rehabilitation standpoint.”

Cody Pannell prepares a whirlpool bath for use by New Orleans Saints players following practice.
Pannell prepares a whirlpool bath for use by New Orleans Saints players following their practice.

Therapy maintenance and rehabilitation for players involves a lot of stretching and other physical activity. “They’re going to have a pretty tough day constantly working and exercising,” Pannell said. “They’re like a fine-tuned car that needs to be maintained and working well. They are constantly on the move, and a breakdown isn’t an option.”

On the field, he assisted with drills for players on the cusp of returning to the field after coming off injuries. “We’re trying to gauge how long it will be until they’re back. With a quarterback, you have to make sure they can throw the ball. With a lineman, you have to make sure they can have stability while moving 300 pounds down the field.”

Pannell saw what it was like to make difficult decisions on when to pull a player off the field and when to return them “in a safe and efficient manner.

“Reaching clinical outcomes is totally different than reaching occupational outcomes,” he said. “You might have a guy who was running 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. If he was running that before an injury, then the owner is going to want him to run that after his injury. There’s a lot of pressure, but the pressure is good because it pushes me to be a better clinician and to rely on my inner drive.”

He didn’t get too star-struck being among the likes of quarterback Drew Brees, running back Alvin Kamara and defensive end Cameron Jordan. “I see them as normal people,” Pannell said “They bleed and hurt just like we do. They need help, and they really appreciate the help.

“Having Drew Brees tell you ‘thank you’ is one thing, but there are really good guys down there who are receptive to good health care. They know that it will keep them healthy and in a position where they can continue making a living in a sport that they love.”

Jeff Hodges, assistant director for outpatient adult rehabilitation in the University Pavilion physical therapy clinic, said lessons Pannell learned will help him as he transitions from his residency into the workplace and classroom. “It’s good to get out of the box and see something different,” Hodges said. “He’s been in an elite setting where he has every resource that you could ever want. He brings back knowledge that can help us.”

Pannell is spending 50 percent of his time delivering care to patients, and the other 50 percent teaching. He also is serving as mentor to the sports resident Tyler Luchtefeld.

“Times are changing, and you have to evolve with health care as it changes,” Hodges said. That includes marrying Pannell’s teaching responsibilities with his time in the PT clinic.  “This gives our employees a chance to do other things besides patient care,” he said.

The partnership with the Saints camp gives UMMC sports residents a wealth of training and develops a strong work ethic, Hodges said. “You’re almost like a primary care provider. You see anything from blisters to a cold. You are a gatekeeper for anything and everything. Our patient population is a little sicker than most. Just the experience he’s had will help him with that here.”

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Lowery, who worked on his doctor of physical therapy while employed both in Louisiana State University’s athletic department and with the Saints. “It’s a way for me to give back to UMMC.

“It took a year or two to get everything in place to have this relationship,” Lowery said. “We want someone who has expertise and is eager to be in the sports medicine field. Whether their goal is to one day be in this setting or not, it gives them a heads up. They have the opportunity to be here and learn.”