Spectators traversing the beautiful greens at THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra aren’t likely to think about needing emergency medical care — and they don’t have to. Jeffrey Smowton, MD, with Emergency Resources Group and medical director of the Emergency Department at Baptist Medical Center Beaches, has spent three decades providing emergency medical care to tournament guests in need.
It began 30 years ago when Smowton was asked to be a physician volunteer at the tournament. As a golf enthusiast and compassionate physician, he swung into action.
“We had some ace bandages, Band-Aids and a few other first-aid supplies in a small room with two chairs,” he said. “We did that for a few years, but I knew we could do much better.”
Today, there are five first-aid tents at THE PLAYERS with 75 volunteers comprised of physicians, registered nurses, physician assistants, EMTs and paramedics. The tents are equipped with life-saving devices, such as AEDs — defibrillators that can restore heart rhythm — and intubation tubes in the event a person’s airway is blocked. IV fluids, pain medication, sutures for lacerations and splints are among the many medical services available. The main tent has four treatment bays with patient beds.
“Through the years, our first-aid stations have evolved into mini-emergency rooms,” said Smowton. “We basically have what we need to stabilize patients and get them to an ER if needed.”
The first-aid tents see an average of 130 people during the tournament week, with 15-20 needing transport to an ER. An ambulance is on standby. Some medical team volunteers are stationed at the tents, while others are considered “rovers” who roam the course to see if anyone needs medical care.
Smowton began his career as a paramedic, where he developed a passion for being “in the field.” That’s how he became adept at understanding the importance of prehospital care provided by first responders.
“It’s gratifying to be there to help someone at the onset of a medical emergency,” he said. “The care you provide at that moment can make all the difference.”
The most common conditions treated include heat exhaustion, dehydration, sprained ankles and sunburn.
“Most situations are fairly benign, but we are prepared for most anything,” Smowton said.
Like the time a man collapsed.
“We saw him go down in the middle of the crowd, and we were right there,” Smowton said. “He went into cardiac arrest, and we used a defibrillator to restart his heart. The man was able to speak by the time he arrived at Baptist Beaches’ ER and survived.”
Some situations have been surprising.
“A woman came to the tent with a large welt on her leg — she had been hit by a golf ball,” said Smowton. “I asked her if the player gave her his autograph or a ball as an apology. She said no, and that she’d be giving him a piece of her mind later. It turned out the woman was the player’s wife!”
The high level of emergency care at THE PLAYERS has caught the attention of other professional golf tournaments interested in emulating the same model. The head physician of the Olympics visited to replicate the ER system when golf was first introduced to the games in Rio de Janeiro.
For Smowton, he’s just doing what he loves most.
“Golf is a great sport, and I get to help people at the same time with a group of amazing medical volunteers — it’s everything I enjoy all at once.”