Partnership helps backside workers stay healthy as a horse
March 28th, 2006
By Kevin Hyde
Imagine making five moves in a year — every year — that take you from Florida to Chicago and back again with stops in between.
Many workers in the Thoroughbred racing industry don’t have to imagine. They lead this lifestyle throughout the year as they follow the horse-racing season across the country.
Among them are assistant trainers, hot walkers, grooms, exercise riders, stable workers, foremen, blacksmiths — men and women who work with racehorses behind the scenes.
Backside workers’ lives can be rugged and dusty. Their work can be hard and sometimes dangerous.
They are hardy souls, but they are not immune to illness and other health ailments.
That’s why the new Kentucky Racing Health Services Center has been a godsend for racetrack workers since it opened last spring. The center, located near Churchill Downs, is a joint initiative between the University of Louisville and the Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund Inc. (KRHWF), a nonprofit foundation created by uncashed parimutuel tickets from thoroughbred racetracks in Kentucky.
The pilot program, created by a $65,520 gift from the foundation, has become a vital source of free medical services for eligible racetrack workers and their families.
U of L junior and senior nursing and nurse practitioner students and second-year medical students staff the center through a university grant.
“This is a great opportunity for U of L nursing students to do service learning,” said nurse practitioner Whitney Nash, who directs the program. “The health center received 837 walk-in patient visits during its first nine months in operation.”
One of those patients was Randy Martin, an assistant trainer for Louisville-based trainer Paul McGee, who has produced former Breeders’ Cup contender Suave and other notable horses.
Martin went to the center last fall with dangerously high blood pressure and chronic headaches. Nash was able to help him control his blood pressure and sent him to an eye doctor for his headaches.
“They found out that I was borderline glaucoma,” Martin said. “I’m on treatment for that now, too. So it was good that I went in there when I did.”
As more backside workers learn about the service, the patient numbers have been increasing.
“In many cases, we have been the first real contact with a health-care professional that these folks have seen — ever,” Nash said. “We’ve had patients over the age of 40 who were seeing a medical professional for the first time in their lives.”
Among the center’s services are routine physicals, Pap smears, breast exams, prostate exams and blood and cholesterol tests. It also treats headaches, itchy eyes, sore throats, minor aches and pains, digestive complaints, diabetes, asthma-related problems and more.
Second-year medical students work with the nursing students one night a week. It’s a rare opportunity for students with vastly different schedules and curricula to learn how to provide care as a team, said Mary Coleman, associate dean of curriculum at the School of Medicine and senior vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Family and Geriatric Medicine.
Students from the Latin American Studies program pitch in to provide interpreters.
Most of the workers who use the center’s services are from Mexico or South America, said Richard Riedel, KRHWF executive director. “They don’t speak much English. And, frankly, they’re very apprehensive and many times suspicious of doctors. They can be reluctant to seek medical help when they need it.”
“Without translators, it can be very difficult to communicate certain ailments,” said Jami Wilson, who completed an internship there for Latin American Studies last fall. “My services helped the patients feel more comfortable with the care they received and allowed the medical staff to feel more confident in the care they provided.”
In addition to the center, KRHWF also provides educational services. Sessions at each track tell workers about the agencies and benefits that are available to them, Riedel said.
In the future, more centers could be among them. U of L and the KRHWF are raising funds to extend the health services program to other racetracks around the state.