Steamboat Ski Patrol and hospital docs create life-saving team
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Last ski season, the three people who experienced cardiac events on the mountain had exceptionally “spectacular” outcomes, according to Dr. Laura Sehnert, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.
They all survived.
“It’s really a phenomenal thing,” said Dr. Will Baker, a cardiologist with UCHealth Heart and Vascular Clinic in Steamboat Springs.
If a cardiac arrest occurs in a hospital, the survival rate is about 20 percent. Outside of the hospital, that rate decreases to around 10 percent.
Baker also uses the word “phenomenal” to describe the job Steamboat Ski Patrol does in saving lives.
The three who survived last season, said Sehnert, did so because Ski Patrol worked so quickly.
Both Baker and Sehnert describe the collaboration and communication between the hospital and Ski Patrol as seamless.
So does John Khonke, Steamboat Resort’s director of Ski Patrol.
“The single most important thing is how seamlessly we all work together,” he said.
The ability of Ski Patrol to get on scene quickly, the care they administer on the mountain and the rapid transport down the mountain all play a critical role, Baker said.
“The first few minutes are critical, and the Ski Patrol excels at that,” he said.
Doctors and Ski Patrol work together in a preseason training that Sehnert said is held to make sure “we are comfortable with each other, understand each other’s capabilities and are on the same page with the type of care we are providing.”
Every ski patroller has a medical advisor and undergoes Outdoor Emergency Care training, Kohnke said. And in the event of a cardiac arrest or any other injury, Ski Patrol notifies the emergency room immediately so they are prepared when the patient arrives, Sehnert said.
“I’ve seen a lot of heart issues come off the mountain,” Baker said, reflecting on his 11 years in Steamboat. “And I’ve always been impressed at the ability of the Ski Patrol to take care of patients.”
Kohnke is proud of his team, and their ability to work together in stressful situations.
“We pride ourselves on having three qualities — being humble, passionate and smart,” Kohnke said.
There are a number of people who work as patrollers and then go on to work as firemen and EMTs and paramedics, Kohnke said.
On their own time, emergency room doctors often volunteer to carry a radio and be on call for care or consultation when they hit the slopes. They check in with Ski Patrol and let them know “there’s a doctor on the hill.”
Kohnke and the doctors also attribute their success in responding to cardiac events to the proliferation of portable automated external defibrillators. There are about 14 spread out strategically on the mountain.
“CPR and the presence of AED machines are extremely important to good outcomes and survival rates,” Baker said.
Kohnke gets emotional when he talks about a visit to the intensive care unit a few years ago to see a woman who had a heart attack on a chairlift. A doctor pulled him aside and told Kohnke he saved her life. During that one-hour visit to the hospital, two other people saw his uniform and thanked him for helping their loved ones that day.
“That reward,” he said, “is priceless.”
He also describes receiving a letter from the wife of one of last season’s three survivors, thanking him for more time with her husband.
The doctors and Kohnke urge precautions to decrease risk. Primarily, if people have any history of heart problems, they should consult their doctor before skiing, especially if traveling from lower altitudes.
Baker said he doesn’t necessarily discourage people with heart disease from skiing, but he does want them to use common sense and get in shape before the ski trip. Once on the slopes, he encourages them to take breaks and avoid going too hard on the first day.
Baker also advises to hydrate, eat but don’t overeat before skiing, limit alcohol and get plenty of sleep.
Kohnke also advises skiing with a friend and staying in bounds. He suggests downloading the Steamboat Resort’s app, which can be used to contact Ski Patrol immediately with a skier’s location.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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