Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 24, 2009
Almost every country kid is a biologist at heart, and I was no different. School held little fascination for me, sophomore biology being the only thing that piqued my interest, other than sports. The administration even sent Stephen Kellogg and me to a convention in Grand Junction, one aimed at recruiting high-performing students as future doctors.
In the cold of March, I brought various body organs to the science lab – hearts, kidneys, livers, all to be used for anatomical dissection and study. These I surgically removed from ranch Hereford calves who, for one reason or another, didn’t survive the seasonal brutality of a Woody Creek spring.
Things change, and I wafted through college, with the sole idea of graduating and getting back on Aspen Mountain. I had dreams of becoming the marketing guru for the then-Aspen Ski Corporation, something that might have happened had I not joined the ski patrol first. I was there when the infamous patrol strike of December 1971 occurred. Unwilling to sell out my fellow men of the mountain for the good of the company, I took my lumps with everyone else. Which, naturally, put a limit on any future personal growth I might have had with the Ski Corp.
A couple of contemporary outlaws, Bob Jarrett and John Vandertuin, had founded Mountain Ambulance Service that year and since I wasn’t working, were kind enough to put me on as a driver and medic. I was a certified Emergency Medical Technician, having graduated from the first class of EMTs in Aspen at the insistence of Fred Braun, father of the Alfred A. Braun Hut System and Aspen’s first ambulance service. The job fit like a glove.
I spent one or two days each week “on-call” at the Snowmass Clinic, which meant I hung around until someone needed transport to Aspen Valley Hospital. Given my early background as a budding doctor coupled with my ski patrol experience, the EMT training came in quite handy, particularly since I’d worked a big-city hospital emergency room. I was capable help.
One particular orthopedic surgeon took me under his wing and gave me the opportunity to practice about everything there was to do with ski injuries. In the beginning, I removed ski boots from broken legs, cut clothes off of injured parts, cleaned up lacerations, held deformed fractures steady for x-rays, and other myriad things that needed doing. As his trust in me increased, I reduced shoulder dislocations, finished the application of plaster casts and held a lot of hands. Most of our patients survived.
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One day a college kid with a scalp laceration was rolled in and my mentor gave me the sign. It was time to stitch a scalp, a procedure I had done nothing to prepare for, other than watch. It started out well – I was good with a needle (I’d vaccinated thousands of calves and started innumerable human IV’s) and got the patient numbed down without fanfare. The trouble arose when it became clear I didn’t know how to professionally close off the sutures.
The doctor would grab the instruments and show me how to do it on one catgut, then I’d go for it again, doing a little better the next time, but still requiring a little help. By the seventh time, I had it down like I’d been doing it for years, and polished that 10-stitch seam off like a pro. We got him cleaned up nicely and as he got ready to leave, he asked, “How’d you do for your first time?” Took the wind right out of my big ego.
Had I stuck with that job, I might have eventually gone to medical school, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter now. The ski patrol offered me my old job back, and I felt like I had some unfinished business there before I moved on. I took the fork in the road, for better or worse.
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