April 1, 2009
VAIL ” Bradley Stieber caught his back edge and fell on the back of his head while snowboarding one day, and he thanks his helmet for saving him from a serious head injury.
Ironically, he hit his head on the day he bought the helmet, and now he won’t set foot on the mountain without one.
“That was the day I learned,” he said. “I knew I would have been in trouble (if I wasn’t wearing a helmet), so now I’m an advocate.”
Helmets are a lot like seat belts ” they’re not a guarantee you won’t get hurt, said Dr. James Downey, one of four trauma surgeons at the Vail Valley Medical Center. Helmets will, however, “cushion the blow and lesson the impact,” he said.
Downey said he used to ski without a helmet until he started working in the valley. He saw how many head injuries happen on the slopes, and it changed him.
“We can fix your knee, take out your spleen, but your brain isn’t replaceable,” Downey said.
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The recent skiing death of actress Natasha Richardson brought the use of helmets while skiing back into the spotlight. She fell during a skiing lesson and seemed lucid after the fall, according to news reports of the accident. Hours later, after complaining of a headache, she was admitted to a hospital. She died the next day.
Downey said the only way to tell what’s going on in the brain, especially to see if blood is building up in the brain, is to do a CAT scan.
“The thing that strikes me as weird about Natasha’s case is they never did a CAT scan,” Downey said.
Head-injury symptoms can creep up slowly. From a worsening headache to confusion to not being able to feel one side of your body, it’s important to know what symptoms to look for after hitting your head, he said.
“There’s a limited amount of space in the skull,” Downey said. “The brain needs oxygen, and without it, it will suffer.”
The Vail Valley Medical Center has a couple of helmet-safety programs for local children and teenagers.
It’s one way to teach the community to be safe on the mountain, although the medical center also sees a need for teaching those who visit the community as well, said Kim Greene, director of the Vail Valley Medical Center’s brain and spinal cord injury-prevention program.
“You don’t want to go out and say it’s going to save your life,” she said. “But (helmets) are definitely proven to reduce the severity of the injury.”
The hospital’s prevention program sends speakers to all second-, sixth- and ninth-grade students in Eagle County to teach about brain injuries. The students learn how to recognize a concussion, and they learn about the anatomy of the brain, Greene said.
An important message is that there’s no cure for brain injuries. “The only cure is to prevent them from happening,” Greene said.
If it does happen, though, the hospital has another program that helps track the recovery from a head injury. Local high school athletes can take an online test asking them a bunch of cognitive questions. The medical center keeps the results on file, and if that student athlete suffers a head injury, they can retake the test later, said Anne Wardrop, the medical center’s trauma program manager.
Doctors then give the athlete a physical exam, which, along with the test, helps determine if the athlete is ready to get back into the sport.
“We’ve all heard about athletes who return too soon and have repetitive injuries,” Wardrop said.
That’s why the prevention program Greene brings to the schools also brings something else ” helmets.
The medical center works with Giro, the popular skiing and snowboarding helmet maker, to get helmets at just about cost. Eagle County school teachers let Greene know how many of their students are in need of helmets, and the program provides them for free.
“I want to promote helmet use in any kind of sport where you can fall and impact the brain,” Wardrop said.
When Donnie Wohlfarth, 27, met his friend Christine Hanks, 23, at Beaver Creek on Friday morning, the first thing she said to him was, “So, you don’t wear a helmet when you ski?”
Hanks has had five concussions in her life ” only one was from skiing, and she wasn’t wearing a helmet when it happened.
“I used to be a ski racer; I’ve seen the damage (falling or crashing) can do without a helmet,” Hanks said.
Hanks said there are just so many ways people can hurt themselves while skiing or riding ” wearing a helmet is just one extra step that could end up meaning the difference between life and death, she said.
Wohlfarth has a helmet, but he only wears it on days he’s skiing in the park. He said he doesn’t like the way it looks on him, so he typically leaves his helmet in the car or at home.
Downey said he sees people with that same attitude coming into the hospital with head injuries.
“A lot of people who don’t wear (helmets), it’s that coolness factor,” Downey said.
The reason Ivan Krska, 42, doesn’t wear one is because he feels safe without one. Krska skis in Utah and Colorado, where the snow is light and often deep, he said.
“I feel safe; I don’t ski very fast,” he said.
He also thinks he’s more aware of his environment without a helmet. He can hear better and doesn’t have a false sense of security he said helmets tend to provide.
Those who wear helmets agree they feel safer with them on. Whether it changes the way they ski or ride, that’s up for debate.
“I ride more aggressively for sure,” said Deane Carberry, 32, a devoted helmet-wearer. “Stuff like going through the trees, you’re head will hit, and you don’t feel it as much.”
Aggressive or not, he isn’t going to snowboard without his helmet.
“Any safety gear that’s possible, that’s going to be able to take care of me, I’m all for it,” he said.