I still wake up from time to time wondering what’s happened to John. He probably doesn’t remember me, but I’ll never forget him and that night while sweeping the mountain 17 years ago when I found him in the trees off the side of the trail.
He was wedged like a folded multi-tool between two trees, unresponsive, with very shallow breathing and a barely detectable pulse. I called in to send everything to my location and to put the helicopter on standby.
It still replays in my mind: I hear Mark, the second patroller on the scene, saying, “I can’t get his jaw open,” and I remember saying we’d need to pull him out from between the trees. I remember vividly telling Sam to try to maintain c-spine stability as we did so. But most of the rest of the entire rescue is missing from my memory. I have since learned that such partial memory is not uncommon. It’s like a movie that’s been chopped up into 15-second segments with only some saved and the rest thrown away.
That night and for days after, I replayed the rescue in my head whether I wanted to or not. I didn’t sleep through the night and was edgy and distracted.
Worst of all, I didn’t understand what was wrong with me and why this was happening to me. It was only after a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing that I began to understand that nothing was wrong with me, that what I was experiencing was to be expected given the traumatizing nature of John’s rescue.
I wasn’t ready for John. I wasn’t prepared. As a result, I was blindsided and overwhelmed by the thoughts and emotions that followed.
I have since learned that many patrollers have had similar experiences and have memories of their own that haunt them to one degree or another. Indeed, as patrollers, all of us have been or will eventually be exposed to rescues that are especially complicated, life-threatening, objectively traumatic, or that stick with us long after the “all clear” has been sounded.
Rescue events like these are potentially traumatizing for us, meaning that they can challenge, compromise, and sometimes overwhelm our capacity to cope and function effectively.
When this happens, a stress injury is sustained. Stress injuries can be mild and transitory or profound and long-lasting and can be aggravated by stressful life circumstances. They may result from exposure to a traumatic event or multiple exposures over time.
Stress injuries are characterized by common, predictable, and, most of all, normal post-event reactions—feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that we usually don’t experience in our day-to-day lives.
And while any of us can get hurt, all of us can get better, especially when we understand how stress injuries are formed and, more importantly, when we have the knowledge and tools to help us navigate the aftermath of a particularly bad scene.
That night in the woods with John is what started me on my mission to ensure that patrollers are not blindsided but instead are ready for rescues like John.
To that end, I’ve created a new course, “Stress Injury Preparation for Patrollers,” for the members of the Eastern Division.
It aims to enable ski patrollers to better understand stress injury—its MOI, signs and symptoms, formation, and mitigation—and thereby be better prepared to help themselves and their fellow patrollers respond to recover from exposure to on-the-hill trauma.
I encourage you to check the new online course called “Stress Injury Preparation for Patrollers.” It can be found on the front page of the Division’s educational event website known as PatrollerSchool.ORG.
The author, Ollie Neith, is a Northern Vermont Alumni Patroller. In 2018, he founded the Camelback Ski Patrol “Disruptive Event Response Team” (DERT) to combat stress injury after living through his episodes. Successes learned from the Camelback team contributed to the creation of a Stress Awareness Team for the entire division and helped peak interest at NSP and several other divisions.