The tragic death last week of actress Natasha Richardson after hitting her head during a ski lesson at a resort in Canada has been widely - and my opinion, correctly - viewed as a cautionary tale about the risks of participating in winter sports, the need for participants to wear helmets and to take even the most seemingly minor head injuries seriously.
When I was growing up in the nineteen sixties and seventies, I spent most of my winter weekends and all of my vacations at my father's home in Vermont. From dawn ‘til dusk I was on the slopes at Stratton or Bromley with my six siblings and friends skiing all over the mountain, often using beginners' trails as short cuts to the "Black Diamond" trails cut out of steeply sloped "glades".
Back then, of course, the only skiiers wearing helmets were racers. (By contrast, the National Ski Areas Association reported that in the 2007-08 season, 43 percent of U.S. skiers and snowboarders wore helmets, up from 25 percent in 2002-03, with the number jumping to 70 percent for children under 10.)
Nevertheless, I can only recall one serious accident. It happened when I was about seventeen following a faster friend through the glades. He stopped short and I ended up careening into a tree.
Years later I was skiing with my then thirteen-year-old sons when Spencer took a bad fall snowboarding on an icy slope, hitting his head (again, he wasn't wearing a helmet back in 1996). His triplet brothers noticed right away that he just did not seem right and they quickly located me.
After initially evaluating Spencer (like most boys his age he tried to shake it off), I took him to the ski patrol hut. A few minutes later we were on our way to a local hospital twenty five minutes away. Even though it appeared that he had suffered, at worst, a mild concussion, I wanted him to be at a hospital in case he started exhibiting any symptoms of a more serious head injury. Tests confirmed that Spencer had suffered a concussion and would need to be watched closely. Two hours later Spencer was cleared to leave the hospital.
I can still vividly recall the lecture that the emergency room staff gave Spencer and his brothers. They told them a story about a boy who had been left in a comma from a snowboarding accident. They told my sons that 75% of all accidents on the mountain involve teenagers not wearing helmets and being reckless.
But Natasha was not a teen age boy and she was not being reckless. I am still having a difficult time understanding how she hit her head hard enough to cause bleeding between her skull and her brain unless the snow she fell on was more ice than packed powder. Would natural snow have cushioned her head? Probably. Would a helmet have helped save her life? Probably. Might her life have been saved had she been seen in a hospital emergency room immediately after she fell? Maybe. Did her death bring awareness to people about the high rate of death and catastrophic injuries sustained while skiing-absolutely.
Is the ski industry doing everything it can to help prevent future accidents? I don't think so. And that is the big problem.
Yesterday, I spent some time talking with Daniel Gregorie, M.D. an internist and founder of the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization (CSSSO), which promotes and supports safety improvements in California skiing, snowboarding and recreational snow sports. The CSSSO also serves as an independent source for information about the safety of California ski resorts. Dr. Gregorie formed the CSSSO in memory of his daughter, Jessica Gregorie, who died in a tragic snowboarding accident at Alpine Meadows in 2006.
Dan is leading the CSSSO's efforts to spotlight California's lack of uniform ski-and-snowboard-safety protections, to serve as a statewide repository of information on ski-resort-related deaths and injuries, and in lobbying the state's 30 ski resorts to publicly release their safety policies.
As I spoke with Dan I had a flood of my own emotions. What a wonderful person he is for all he is doing to keep our families safe. He is a gift to each of us. But my thoughts for most part were stuck on how Jessica, such a beautiful, athletic and recent Smith College graduate, could have fallen to her death in a ravine Alpine Meadows that should have blocked off from skiers and snowboards. As I listened to Jessica's father I had a difficult time finding words.
My mind was stuck on the dates. Natasha Richardson died one day after what would have been Jessica's twenty eighth birthday. But instead of dwelling on the past Jessica's father was providing tips and advice for other parents.
Dr. Gregorie understands that the ski and snowboard industry, for the most part, "is a rescue culture and not a prevention culture." He is working hard to make snow sports safer in California by supporting a bill (AB 990) that has just been introduced in the California legislature by state assemblyman Dave Jones.
In a future blog I will talk more about my conversation with Dr. Gregorie and the new California ski and snowboard safety bill; but for now I want to share some questions he thinks parents should ask before they hit the slopes to make snow sports safer:
- Is the resort at which you are planning to ski or snowboard safety conscious? Is it proactive in preventing accidents? What is its safety policy? Does it even have a policy?
- What is the resort's emergency plan? Are paramedics at the mountain or does EMS have to come from off-site? Where's the nearest hospital?
- What do the resort's trail signs look like and are they uniform and easy to understand? Like highway signs, everyone should be able to understand the signs. Unfortunately, there isn't uniformity when it comes to trail signs.
- Is the beginner's slope off-limits to the other skiers and snowboarders? Many times faster, more experienced skiers will take short cuts through these trails resulting in serious accidents.
- Are helmets mandatory? (Remember: helmets are not a panacea -- they provide considerably less protection once a person exceeds 14 miles per hour -- and occasionally can induce complacency. "Sometimes you can put a helmet on a 13-year-old and he thinks he's invulnerable," notes Michael Berry, president of the Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). "The helmet's only part of the issue. Behavior and education about when the helmet can be effective are another part.")
I am not sure if this is being done anywhere, but I have often thought it might be a good idea to issue special bibs to skiers and snowboarders under a certain age to alert others to their presence and, hopefully, cut down on collisions between out of control skiers and snow boarders and reckless behavior.
Dr. Gregorie would also like to see resorts have some type of skills assessment and a type of parental reporting system so people who are skiing to endanger the lives of others would be held accountable and the number of serious accidents curbed.
I am looking forward to working with Dr. Gregorie and will continue to report on his progress. In the meantime, if you are a skier or snowboarder and want more information and/or would like to make a contribution to the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization, visit its websites by clicking here or here.