Getting hurt on the mountain is what you don't want to think about. What do you do? Ski resorts are prepared to handle most any kind of accident, and it starts with ski patrol. They are the first responders to the accident scene and the first to assess the situation to see where you go next. Here's the scenario at Steamboat, Colo., not unlike the scene at all resorts.
"We will take them to the Transfer Center at the bottom of the mountain, depending on the severity of the injury," Steamboat's Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke told OnTheSnow. "We're trained to do a survey of what happened, what are the injuries and complaints, so we don't miss anything. It's a head-to-toe checklist. A big one is if you lose consciousness. We don't make you go to the hospital, but it is sometimes strongly encouraged."
Kohnke says Ski Patrol is trying to find out the totality of your injuries and mental status. They'll ask four questions: your name, where are you, what happened, and what time did it happen. They want to check if you are awake, alert, and oriented.
The local hospital operates the transfer center at Steamboat. A shuttle will take you, the family, the kids, and ski equipment to the hospital. An ambulance will do it depending on the severity of the injury. It's the same at the Vail Valley Medical Center. If a person has an isolated extremity injury, Vail Ski Patrol puts the person in the sled and radios the emergency room. A Suburban heads out to one of five pick-up areas in the Vail Valley, and the entire sled with the person in it is loaded directly into the back of the van. The injured skier is unloaded at the hospital, placed onto a gurney, and taken directly to the emergency department.
"It's unfortunate when a person gets injured on their vacation, but we do everything we can to give them excellent care and make the unfortunate event less painful," says Chip Woodland, an emergency room physician at Vail Valley Medical Center. "We try to decrease the stress and the inconvenience as much as possible." Woodland adds there is a ski locker room at the hospital. When a patient comes in, their skis get locked away until their family members pick them up to leave.
Woodland says while the ER doctors are trained to take care of anything, but they're especially good at ski injuries. "When a large portion of your practice focuses on a certain thing, you tend to develop a certain expertise in that." He says when the ski hill is open, the majority of patients have ski injuries. Knees are the most common injuries in skiers, while shoulders and wrists are most common in snowboarders.
Kohnke urges skiers and riders to always be careful with knee injuries, because a lot of times people don't want to get it checked. "We ask how long they'll be in Steamboat. We typically encourage them to get the knee assessed as soon after the injury as possible because the next day it will swell up and be harder to assess."
Woodland agrees. "The exam on a fresh knee in the emergency department is much more accurate than the next day when it is all swollen and it is incredibly tender. I can usually give them a good idea of what is going on."
Woodland then gives people the option, as many are in Vail for a week of vacation. They can go home and get the injury fixed. Or they can see some of the best orthopaedic physicians in the country who work at the Vail hospital. VVMC has two orthopaedic practices, one of which is the renowned Steadman Clinic. "Many people take us up on it. Like anything in medicine, all Dr. Steadman does is knees. That's why he's an excellent knee surgeon." Dr. Steadman is famous for being the "go to" physician for members of the U.S. ski and snowboard teams.
Woodland says they're fortunate to have such a high level of orthopaedic care in a relatively small town, surrounded by other ski towns such as Breckenridge, Keystone, Copper, Steamboat and the Aspen-area mountains. He adds that the staff at the hospital is happy, and they transfer that happiness to the patients. "They're happy people when they come to work because they were out skiing yesterday."