Big-time meds for big-time jocks
January 29, 2007
ASPEN ” Big air can mean big crashes and occasionally big injuries.
Spectacular wipeouts involving top athletes attempting over-the-top moves drive up television ratings of the Winter X Games and fulfill the voyeuristic urges of commentators, cameramen and fans alike. But for a handful of medical technicians and emergency responders, they’re not so sexy. For them, crashes often mean they have to go to work.
On Friday, the Buttermilk ski patrol and medical personnel from ESPN, the Aspen Ambulance District and Aspen Valley Hospital teamed up to stabilize skier Sanna Tidstrand after, as http://www.expn.go.com puts it, she “took a nauseating fall that left her unconscious on the [skiercross] course for close to five minutes.” She had internal bleeding in her head and was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
On the same day, on the same skiercross course, Courteny Strait cracked four vertebrae after spilling hard. She will likely spend the next several months rehabilitating with the help of her doctors and the specialists who work the X Games for ESPN.
At first glance, it appears there are almost as many medical personnel on hand for the Winter X Games as there are athletes. There need to be that many to deal with dozens of incidents that result in sprained joints, stretched tendons and pulled muscles. They are typically treated on site by ESPN’s staff of 27. There are doctors, nurses, physical therapists, massage therapists and a host of other skilled professionals ready to aid the athletes. There is also an orthopedic surgeon on hand.
For ESPN, the woman in charge is Dr. Susan McGowen, a University of New Mexico professor who has been working and traveling with the network for 15 years, supervising X Games medical services all over the world. Seven of her staff members speak fluent Spanish, a necessary skill when the summer games set up shop in Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific coast.
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McGowen schedules her staff to be on hand throughout the day for athletes, who begin their practices early in the morning and compete well into the night. There are enough people on duty at any given time to deal with multiple injuries coming from different venues at the same time.
During competition in the superpipe, for instance, four members of McGowen’s team are at the top of the pipe and four at the bottom. Depending what’s going on at the time, other teams are covering courses where athletes are competing or practicing.
“Covering all that square mileage, all those venues, is one of the biggest challenges,” she said.
If athletes are injured in the pipe ” or anywhere on the mountain ” the ski patrol is the first to respond. If they need to be transported down the hill, athletes ride down in a toboggan, like any other skier or snowboarder at Buttermilk.
In fact, treating injured athletes involves an enormous amount of cooperation. Typically, it all begins with the ski patrol, which is always the first to respond to an on-mountain injury.
Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said there are eight to 10 extra ski patrol on duty at Buttermilk during the X Games. In addition to pulling extra staff from other mountains at Aspen/Snowmass, the company relies on ski patrol from resorts around the country to lend a hand at the X Games venue and throughout sections of Buttermilk that remain open to the public.
The Aspen Ambulance District stations two ambulances at Buttermilk throughout the games, each with two medics.
And Aspen Valley Hospital has its usual complement in the emergency room, which is staffed at higher levels throughout the winter as a mater of course. Aspen Valley Hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche said no additional staffing is required during the X Games, because only a few athletes end up in the emergency room.
“It’s not that every single injury ends up at AVH, because there are ways for injuries to be treated out there,” Dyche said.
McGowen and her staff work out of a two-room suite at the Inn at Aspen.
She pointed out that even the most spectacular crashes rarely result in life-threatening or disabling injuries. A lot of that has to do with the excellent physical condition that world-class athletes keep themselves in.
“These guys are pros,” McGowen said. “I’m not going to the local skatepark and setting up.”
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