From left: Riki Kirchhoff, Beth Mallon and son, Tommy. Kirchhoff’s quick thinking and expertise as a Certified Athletic Trainer (CAT) prevented Tommy from becoming a quadriplegic, or even dying, after a lacrosse injury in 2009. Kirchhoff says only 35 percent of California high schools have CATs. Courtesy photo

After near tragedy, woman establishes nonprofit for safety of student athletes

SOLANA BEACH — Many locals remember Beth Mallon as a gifted pet photographer who demonstrated compassion in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when she published “Eyes of Katrina.”The book, compiled of photographs she took of pets that survived the disaster, raised awareness and donations for victims.On May 23, 2009, she was touched by tragedy herself while photographing the final lacrosse game of her son, Tommy, two weeks before graduating from Santa Fe Christian School.“I was shooting downfield at a player who was hurt when I twirled my camera to see what the number was of a second child who was injured,” she said. It was Tommy.Tommy told Riki Kirchhoff, the high school’s assistant athletic trainer, that he felt fine. Kirchhoff nevertheless insisted that he stay down. After a series of tests, Kirchhoff discovered that Tommy couldn’t feel the back of his head. She stabilized his head and neck, and with input from Dr. Eric Waldrip, a team parent and anesthesiologist who was in the stands, she contacted paramedics.

Graduates of the first training class of ASA (Athletes Saving Athletes) held at Santa Fe Christian School Jan. 20 learn how to recognize signs and symptoms of potentially life-threatening injuries encompassing the head and neck, heat illness and sudden cardiac arrest. They also become Red Cross certified in CPR and AED (automated external defibrillator). The pilot program is being launched by Advocates for Injured Athletes (AIA), founded by Beth and Tommy Mallon. Courtesy photo
After arriving at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Tommy was diagnosed with a fracture of the first cervical vertebra, which links the skull to the spine. Doctors explained that had he stood up after the accident, he most likely would have died or become a quadriplegic.

“There are so many things on that day that went right that could’ve gone so wrong,” Mallon said. “All I kept thinking about was what does somebody do when they don’t have these resources? I felt like I couldn’t sit back and not try to change things.”

Key to Tommy’s positive outcome was that Kirchhoff was a certified athletic trainer (CAT). According to Kirchoff, only 35 percent of California high schools employ CATs. The Mallons turned their near tragedy into a mission by establishing AIA (Advocates for Injured Athletes), a nonprofit that seeks to ensure that every high school in California has CATs.

Funded with a $25,000 private donation through the Red Cross, they established ASA (Athletes Saving Athletes), a pilot program that provides instruction to 30 student athletes at 10 San Diego County high schools in recognizing symptoms of potentially life-threatening injuries encompassing the head and neck, heat illness and sudden cardiac arrest.

ASA ambassadors, in turn, teach fellow athletes what they’ve learned when they return to school. The class is taught by a CAT with a representative from the Red Cross who certifies participants in CPR and automated external defibrillator.

The first training was held Jan. 20 with 48 student athletes at Santa Fe Christian School. On March 8, another 50 will be certified at Torrey Pines High School. Since the grant was written to serve 300 athletes, funding remains for about 200 more students. So that all regions within the county can be represented, a lottery is planned.

“Until Jan. 20, we had no idea how well the program would be received,” Mallon said. “We have been overwhelmed. Every adult that has seen this curriculum says, ‘I want this to be seen at PTA’ or ‘I want our athletic coach to see this.’”

Last year the Mallons testified at the Youth Sports Safety Alliance on Capitol Hill. They were also notified by the Ohio State Buckeyes that AIA was designated as the recipient of donations from an upcoming “fun run.”

“We found a niche where there was a need,” Mallon said. “We are taking the information directly to the athletes and making them leaders and giving them the know-how to save a life if no one is on the sideline.”

Private donations, grant money and corporate sponsors such as Cymer, which has already signed on, are needed to keep pace with demand and expand nationally.

Kirchhoff, who serves on AIA’s Outreach Advisory Board, explains that Tommy’s accident was the most serious event she encountered since receiving her certification.

“His injury made me realize that these kids’ lives are in our hands,” she said. “I challenge parents to ask the administrators of their children’s school, ‘Who’s on the sideline taking care of my child?’”

For more information or to make a donation, visit, email or call (858) 361-6553.

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