by Paddy O’Connell, photo by Dominique Taylor
The radio squawks and your heart is a 10-pound sledgehammer. A racer on Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey World Cup downhill course compressed awkwardly at 67 miles per hour and tomahawked through the orange safety fencing. You arrive to bloodstained snow. A femur bone—splintered like a broomstick—protrudes from the skier’s right thigh. Blood garden hoses from the wound. The patient screams in agony. His femoral artery is severed. He will die in less than five minutes if you can’t stop the bleeding. It’s all up to you.
OK, breathe. This is only a drill. The skier is a med student from Rocky Mountain Vista University School of Medicine (RMVU) wearing a Strategic Operations’ Cut Suit, a hyper realistic field surgical simulator. Even the fake blood looks, feels, and smells authentic. Another med student remotely squirts liter after liter of fake blood out of the prosthetic wound. This is the most intense of the five on-mountain training scenarios Dr. Larry Gaul, United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Chief Medical Officer, and Dr. Tony LaPorta, professor of surgery at RMVU, are using to train 70 World Cup volunteer doctors in emergency medical procedures at a Beaver Creek seminar.
USSA has employed the Cut Suit for the last five years, to recreate World Cup injuries. The compound femur scenario comes from Aksel Svindal’s 2007 Beaver Creek crash, which nearly cost him his leg and career. The quick response of the medical staff saved Svindal. The context, and the realism of the Cut Suit produces the emotional, psychological, and physiological reactions physicians experience in a crash like Svindal’s—and force them to fight through them. “The Cut Suit creates that same stress,” says Kit Lavell, Executive Vice President of Strategic Operations. “The body engages the fight or flight response. Participants exhibit the same real life response to trauma: tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, loss of fine motor skills.”
The goal isn’t to eliminate those stressors. Performing while a patient is bleeding to death is inherently stressful. But, says Lavell, with training, you can perform better under pressure.
Back in real time, blood is sprinkling the snowpack. You drop next to the shrieking skier, ask his name, tell him who you are, and that you’re here to help. Your chest swells with quick, short breaths. Your hands shake as you pull on blue latex gloves. But you’re in the zone when the cuff snaps on your wrist. The racer’s head jerks back and he bellows as you dig your left knee into his hip crease and put pressure on the laceration with your right hand. The warm, quick flow of blood pulses through your fingers at first, but slows as you weight your knee. A toboggan with a full medical kit and tourniquet is on the way. You are the first responder at a World Cup—and you just saved a skier’s life.
From the Deep Winter issue.