When Sonny Flock’s ski hit the edge of a hidden rock, he was thrown into the air. His body slammed onto the stone with a sharp crack.
Flock recalls that the sun was shining brightly on the back bowl that day in March, 2010, at Arapahoe Basin. He and his friend Kyle Hoehn had planned for a day of big air, hitting jumps and skiing the moguls. “You know,” Hoehn suggested, “we oughta get helmets.” Flock had never worn a helmet in hundreds of outings, but that day he told Hoehn, “Yeah, yeah, it’s probably a good idea.”
When Flock tried to swerve out of the way of the snow-covered rock, the helmet turned out to be a very good idea.
By the time Hoehn managed to shake off his own skis and make the trek uphill to his unconscious friend, he rolled Flock over to find a pool of blood under his face. Flock’s injuries were so bad that a Flight For Life Colorado helicopter airlifted Flock directly from the back bowl, to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood.The accident ruptured Flock’s spleen, punctured his lung, fractured his right hip and parts of his spine. It crushed the bones in his face – both eye sockets, two jaw bones, his nose and the roof of his mouth. It took more than 10 hours for surgeons to reconstruct his face. “They put 47 screws and 14 plates in my face,” Flock said.
When Flock left St. Anthony two and half weeks later, he had no permanent brain damage, despite a concussion. “The helmet that I was wearing was cracked,” said Flock. “It actually had just a big gash in it. It no doubt saved my life.”
The use of helmets up, and brain injuries are down on Colorado’s slopes. Yet ski-related fatalities are at a record high, with 20 deaths last year.
So far this season, several people have died on the slopes, often in poor snow conditions. One person was killed after falling on a submerged rock.
Skiers and snowboarders have taken to helmets in record numbers. The National Ski Areas Association reports that, over the past 10 years, the number has risen from 25 percent to 67 percent.
Professional ski instructor Bill Kelso, who also works at his wife Marie’s Outabounds Ski and Board in Centennial, Colo., sees Coloradans as trendsetters. He watches visitors arrive without helmets and quickly adapt to wearing one.
Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine examined numerous studies of head injuries from skiing and snowboarding. The study, published in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, concluded that helmets clearly reduce injury. The researchers recommended everyone wear a helmet during alpine sports.
Serious injury not always immediately detected
Helmets protect the brain better from collisions with trees than with the ground.
When a skier or snowboarder collides with a tree or another person, the head bounces back slightly. Helmets provide more of a buffer in this situation than they do when someone collides with a surface that has no give – which is often the snow-packed ground.
“When you hit the ground, your head is going to stop, whether you have a helmet on or not,” said Dr. Stuart Levy, chief of neurosurgery at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood.
Most brain injuries from simple falls are concussions, Levy explained. He warned that a person might look or feel fine after a fall. But symptoms of serious damage can develop later, including headache, weakness, numbness, decreased coordination, repeated vomiting or nausea and slurred speech. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise that these symptoms, and even a temporary loss of consciousness, are cause to seek immediate emergency attention.
More severe injuries include bruises in the brain, skull fractures and tears in blood vessels. Such injuries require immediate surgical attention and can lead to coma or even death if left untreated.
Actress Natasha Richardson died in 2009 after a fall during a ski lesson in Canada. Severe bleeding in her brain set in many hours after she left the slope – by then it was too late for emergency surgery to save her life. Richardson was not wearing a helmet.
At St. Anthony Hospital, the top-level trauma center closest to the mountains and home to a Flight For Life Colorado base, treats many of the skiers and snowboarders in the region with severe injuries. Chief of neurosurgery Dr. Stuart Levy says that St. Anthony has seen noticeably fewer patients with severe brain injuries from the slopes over the past 14 years, as helmet use has risen.
According to Levy’s research, helmets reduce the risk of a brain injury by 75 to 80 percent, and reduce the risk of death from injury by 80 percent.
The three most common causes of head injuries in downhill snow sport accidents include collisions with trees, falls from heights of 10 to 15 feet during jumps and tricks – and surprisingly simple falls to the ground, Levy said.
Anyone strapped to a pair of skis or a snowboard has eaten snow at one point or another. A tumble here or there. A topple on the bunny slopes. Levy said even a minor fall can be dangerous.
But skiers and snowboarders also are taking more risks than ever. Resorts have built terrain parks where skiers and snowboarders can perform tricks, launching themselves off of half-pipes of snow, metal rails, and even picnic tables.
Levy said such falls from extreme tricks only accounted for about five percent of injuries 15 years ago, but are more common now. Even helmeted skiers and snowboarders are sustaining severe injuries in terrain parks.
Some have questioned whether wearing a helmet encourages people to feel a false sense of confidence, leading them to ski or snowboard recklessly.
The Johns Hopkins study refuted this, and Sonny Flock, the skier who sustained horrific injuries during his fall three years ago, rejected the notion as well.
“Maybe wearing a helmet would give you more of a false sense of confidence, but it certainly didn’t for me,” said Flock, who lives in Indiana. “I don’t want to wreck or crash or hurt myself at all.”