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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Spencer Rendahl: Ski Safety

While repeated blizzards have created hours of shoveling for some, they’ve also been a boon to skiers and others who choose to hit the trails.
My family reveled in the snow. Then I received a phone call one recent Saturday afternoon.

“John broke his leg,” my husband informed me from the top of a nearby mountain, surrounded by the ski patrol.

His helmet had probably prevented a concussion.

After a sled ride down the mountain and an ambulance ride to an emergency room, my 5-year-old son received painkillers and an x-ray. Doctors concluded that my son broke his right femur bone and needed to wear a cast running from his ankle to his rib cage and then down half the other leg for six weeks. He’d also need a wheelchair.

Our son was in pain but stable as the evening wore on and we waited for his cast. Around us, were more reminders that skiing can be dangerous. Another child in the ER had suffered a worse accident on the same mountain. Later my phone beeped a headline from The Boston Globe that a 13-year-old boy had died in an accident at a Massachusetts ski area that afternoon.

Over the years, safety measures have been introduced to protect skiers from falls and crashes. I didn’t wear a helmet when I skied growing up, but now they’re standard equipment.

And in the wake of a recent crash at the Alpine World Championships by New Hampshire native and Olympian Bode Miller, ski racers are debating the use of more high tech safety gear. Miller missed the world cup season last year because of a crash that required back surgery.

Racing upwards of 90 miles an hour down a snowy – and sometimes icy – course can lead to broken collarbones and shoulder blades and internal bleeding. And while broken legs, like my son’s, are common among racers, injuries to the head, neck, shoulders, and chest, can be more devastating.

The New York Times has reported that a safety device used to protect skiers' upper bodies - similar to airbags that professional motorcyclist use - has been approved by the international ski federation for racing, but isn’t mandatory. It’s now up to racers to wear them in competition.

My son will be out of his cast and wheelchair in 12 days. One a recent evening I read him a book about safety. When I asked him why we wear helmets when we ski and bike, he said matter-of-factly, “So if you break your leg, you don’t break your head, too.”

Skiing can be fun – and dangerous. Technology offers protections, but they only work when we use them.

Suzanne Spencer Rendahl is a former journalist whose work has appeared in publications including the Boston Globe. She lives with her husband and two children in Plainfield, NH.
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