Helmet use saves lives across recreation activities
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Ramona Rudis wouldn’t be alive if she wasn’t wearing a bicycle helmet on that fateful August day last year.
She fractured her skull, eye socket, cheek, pelvis and hip.
She had two hematomas — one that still causes numbness on the left side of her face, and she’s still recovering her short memory.
But she is alive, and doing remarkably well. Rudis was out of the hospital in three weeks — much quicker than the three or four months initially estimated by doctors.
Visiting Steamboat Springs from her home near Dallas last summer, Rudis wasn’t doing anything extreme — just biking around town.
She had been mountain biking all day, then went to see a client’s new house. She wanted to get to a better vantage point for a photo.
Rudis doesn’t remember what happened next, but, as best as she and her husband can ascertain, she glanced over her shoulder as her front tire hit some loose gravel on the recently repaved asphalt. Her bike left the road, dropped off into a drainage ditch and “slingshotted” her onto the pavement with no time to react or get an arm out to buffer the massively hard impact.
The timing of her emergency medical care was also crucial to Rudis’ survival. The first car to come upon her happened to be an ambulance on an EMT training exercise.
From Steamboat, she was transported to Grand Junction. Denver wasn’t an option because of inclement weather.
A top brain surgeon happened to be on duty, and he saved both Rudis’ brain and her life.
“If I didn’t have a helmet on, there’s no way I would have survived,” Rudis said the surgeon told her. “I would not be here.”
Rudis admits she didn’t really want to wear a helmet — especially as they were just riding casually on neighborhood streets. But, she did on the insistence of her friend.
Today, she is the one who insists others wear helmets.
“You never know where something could happen,” Rudis said.
Now, her friends say, “You’d better wear a helmet because of Ramona.”
“It’s not a subject of discussion whether there is a benefit to wearing a helmet,” said Dr. Nathan Anderson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “For any activity, the data is there.”
For the most injurious bicycle crashes, Anderson said, the chance of that crash becoming fatal is reduced 50 percent by wearing a helmet.
Serious injury, particularly skull fractures and brain bleeding, can be reduced by 70 to 85 percent, said Steamboat pediatrician Dr. Dana Fitzgerald.
And the statistics are similar for motorcycles.
It is important to make sure a helmet fits correctly, Fitzgerald said. It should sit low on the forehead (about one or two finger width’s above the eyebrows) and be snug.
The helmet and chin straps don’t have to be uncomfortably tight, she said, but they should be snug. She added that local bike and sports shops are a good resource for making sure you have the right helmet and that it is secured properly.
Anderson noted helmet science and design is always improving — consistently become more effective, lighter weight and less expensive.
You don’t have to buy the most expensive helmet, Fitzgerald said. A Consumer Protection Safety Commission sticker indicates a high level of protection. She also recommends replacing a helmet with any nicks or cracks or if it has been in a significant crash, even if it appears okay. Anderson also emphasized helmets should be worn on scooters, skateboards and inline skates.
“You can be the safest bike rider out there, and you can still have an accident,” Fitzgerald said.
All it takes is a distracted driver, as evidenced with the recent incident in which an 11-year-old girl was hit by a vehicle while in a crosswalk with stop signs. The girl was wearing a helmet, which cracked, but she didn’t suffer any head injuries. She was thrown nearly 6 feet in the air and fractured her ankle.
Anderson advocates for more stringent helmet laws. He said data shows helmet usage can increase by as much as 400 percent with the creation of municipal laws.
No state has a law requiring adults to wear bicycle helmets. Twenty-one states (not Colorado) have laws requiring young riders to wear helmets.
Paradoxically, Anderson noted that stronger laws are in place for children, which while very positive, data shows most of the fatal crashes involve people older than 20. Older patients can also be more vulnerable to more serious injuries.
The primary argument against more helmet laws is “personal freedom,” Anderson said. “But those personal choices also increase the cost and risk on society.”
A traumatic brain injury can have lifelong impacts both in terms of health and economics.
While impossible to overstate in terms of overall risk reduction, both Anderson and Fitzgerald point out that helmets are not always effective in preventing concussions, especially in certain types of movement and rotation related to various sports and injuries.
“A helmet is not a panacea,” Anderson said. “You don’t put on one and become Superman. But you put on one, and you do increase the odds,” — odds of survival and odds of maintaining a quality of life when you do survive.
“Who doesn’t want to increase those odds?” Anderson said.
It’s a very simple decision with a really big impact, Fitzgerald said.
Rudis recently returned to Steamboat to say thank you to the doctors and medical staff who saved her life.
“I’m the poster child for wearing a helmet because I wouldn’t be here without one.”
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