Virginia Mason orthopedic surgeon David Belfie, MD, is a regular at Stevens Pass ski resort. He especially enjoys hitting the slopes with his 12-year-old triplet daughters. They are an ordinary alpine family pack, until a call comes in over Dr. Belfie’s walkie-talkie. That means someone on the mountain needs his help, so the ski patrol volunteer must head to another location or the aid station fast.
“It’s not uncommon to see 15 to 30 patients up there on a busy weekend day,” says Dr. Belfie, who’s been volunteering with the ski patrol since 2004.Attracting thousands of skiers with fitness and skill levels all over the map, Stevens Pass recruits volunteer physicians to boost the treatment capabilities of the ski patrol. All members of the ski patrol are accomplished outdoor technicians, but there are some medical treatments they can’t provide. Administering medication quickly can be crucial for some patients, which only a medical doctor can do. Then there are the dislocated joints to be cared for on the spot or a fracture that needs stabilizing.
Not every emergency is related to displaced bones. Dr. Belfie might see a skier with diabetes who got in more runs than food and has dangerously low blood sugar. Then there are the “weekend warriors” who haven’t skied in years and are overdressed and overheating and get into varying degrees of trouble, from simple exhaustion to a full-blown heart attack.
“The lift operators might notice the guy who’s struggling to make it to the lift line, looking ashen,” says Dr. Belfie. “Symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain and nausea are some things I can evaluate right then.”
Still, orthopedic injuries are the most common problems that occur on the slopes. Part of Dr. Belfie’s job as a volunteer is to educate other volunteer physicians, who don’t practice orthopedics, about dealing with dislocations and fractures. The most frequent injuries involve the knees, hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders. Skiers tend to suffer injuries to their lower extremities, he says, while snowboarders sustain more injuries to the upper body, because of the different way they fall.
Fortunately, really serious injuries are rare. For the more routine mishaps his daughters sometimes accompany him to the aid station and help locate supplies to take care of a patient. They know that’s their dad’s priority when he’s on patrol.
“I’m typically doing more treating than skiing, but it’s still a lot of fun for my family,” says Dr. Belfie.
A version of this article was originally published on VM’s internal news site.