Diary of a Ski Patrolman: Week 16
It’s nearly the end of March.
It seems as if just the other day I was walking down the slopes of Okemo with orange discos bound together by rope, getting the trails ready for snow. And then the snow came.
It came in huge amounts, in lucky storms strung across the days and months that have now begun to fade into memory. Memories like that of the countless patrollers skiing down the mountain on my first sweep — a crimson field united in purpose and form. Splashes of powder against my legs, my quickening heartbeat as I see crossed skis stuck upright in the middle of Lower Arrow, the tug of compassion I feel when I first hear a cry of pain from a patient.
I wrote this winter to help remember my place at Okemo, and to invite others to live in the world that I have found here — a snowy, sometimes cold, but always enjoyable place.
My first patient, on a day which now seems distant, was on Jolly Green Giant. This is a cruising trail that I enjoy, but on that day it became a trail of heart-pounding, cold-sweat anticipation. It was a trail of snow, and a trial by fire. It was my chance to prove myself, and a chance to fail. Everything rushed through my mind: clear the spine, assess the patient, radio the hut, treat the patient, radio the first aid room, package the patient and transport. The procedure was clear — but all of these thoughts came at once, an unstoppable flood.
I came upon my patient near the base of the trail, pulled up my sled below her, and stomped out of my skis. My hands were already moist inside my Nitrile gloves. “Hello, my name is Josh, I’m with the Okemo Ski Patrol. Can I help you today?”
“Yes, please, I fell and it hurts here,” she said, pointing to her collarbone. “I’ll take a look at that in just one second, but first I need to clear your spine — I mean, I need to make sure that your back and neck are not injured, so let me know if anything back here hurts,” I said, as I began pressing my fingers against her spine, first working my way down and then back up, making sure to be both quick and thorough. In our training, clearing the spine was so simple, and understood by “patient” and patroller.
In reality, it became weird. “Why do you need to feel my spine, it’s my collarbone that hurts!” She said this with panicked urgency, thinking that I probably didn’t understand what the problem was. I realized then how different it must be to be the patient in real life, to have real pain and real fear, lying on a snowy slope depending on the help of someone you have barely met to safely treat you and take you down to further care.
It was then that I realized that patrolling was just as much about treating the patient as a friend as it was about treating their ailment or injury. It’s not just about slings and swathes, box splints and backboards. It’s about treating people with compassion and skill, when they are vulnerable and afraid.
This was but one patient of many who taught me there were more things at play than it appeared. I’ll remember a young woman whom I found on Mountain Road with an injured wrist. She was holding her wrist with her mitten lying beside her, and as I walked over to face her and introduce myself, I saw her tears. Between tears and with a pained tone of resignation she said, “My wrist. . .it hurts. . .so much, I, I think it’s. . .broken.”