The Power of Connection

“The number one predictor of how someone will recover after a traumatic event is how safe they feel in their relationships.” – H. Hansman, Powder Days

In an earlier article for Trail Sweep (Don’t be Blindsided, Be Ready), I noted how my recovery from a significant stress injury was facilitated by a CIS debriefing and learning more about stress injury. But what I failed to note was that my “return to normal” was due in large part to the support of those around me, especially my ski patrol “family” at Camelback.

Years later, I can recall the scene in the aid room after returning from the helicopter landing zone. Patrollers all around offering hugs and high fives on my having spotted John in the woods on sweep. This was not my usual patrol night and these were not my usual night duty colleagues. I hardly knew some of them. Yet there they were, asking how I was doing, making sure I was OK. Of course, I wasn’t OK. But their kind words and actions certainly registered.

As word got out, my phone rang regularly with others wanting to know how I was faring. And when I signed in for my regular Saturday shift, I got more hugs and high 5s even from the most reserved (seemingly jaded), grizzled old veterans.
A year or so ago, I had the pleasure, as a member of the VT Peer Support Network, of leading a CIS defusing with a group of patrollers. All of them recounted similar experiences with their patrol family. One participant summed it up well: “I could feel the love.” Another echoed the sentiment.

We’re all connected!

Such strong bonds of connection to others are incredibly important for first responders, patrollers included. The literature is quite clear. The most important factor in determining the extent of stress injury—be it traumatic, depletion, or mission-related—is your level of social connectedness. Knowing that someone has your back, that you have people you can count on in time of need, and people who care about you, goes a very long way towards getting back to normal after traumatic event exposure. Indeed, perceiving and believing that people know you, care about you, and have a sense of how you doing is more important than the actual social support provided.

So, do whatever you can to reduce isolation. Make and maintain social connections. Building strong, positive relationships with loved ones, friends, and colleagues can provide you with needed support, guidance, and acceptance in good and bad times. Support systems can play a vital role in resilience

Beyond the Numbers: Your Input on Stress Awareness Impact

The Patroller School online course, Stress Injury Preparation for Patrollers or SIPP, launched in September and profiled in the December issue of Trail Sweep, has had a greater than anticipated impact both in terms of response and reaction.

Response

Since the course was launched in September, more than 150 patrollers and mountain hosts have requested access to it. Granted this isn’t a viral number but, for Patroller School, it’s quite significant.

According to Orest Ohar, Eastern Division’s Online School Administrator, “the SIPP course has become the division’s fastest growing online course. It has the highest student count, more than double any other courses taught by the MTR, Avalanche, or OET programs.”

More than half of these students have started the course and more than a third have completed it, while many others are still working their way through it.

Many patrols and every region are represented. Some more than others:• Ski Sundown (CT) 6 students

• Okemo (SVT) 5
• Mad River Glen (NVT) 5
• Camelback and Spring Mountain (EPA)  5 each, and
• Gore (ENY) 4

There’s even been interest from the Central, Far West, Rocky Mountain, and Intermountain Divisions.

Reaction 

The ED Course Improvement Questionnaire, used for all Patroller School courses, is built into SIPP. And students are strongly encouraged to use it to provide feedback.

40% of the students who have completed the course, also provided feedback via the Improvement Questionnaire. This too is quite significant: a good survey response rate ranges between 5% and 30%. An excellent response rate is 50% or higher.

As noted below, student reactions are very positive. All responses average in the “Agree” (good) to “Strongly Agree” (very good) levels. Indeed, there have been no negative survey responses whatsoever. (Scoring Levels: 3=Neither Agree or Disagree 4=Agree 5=Strongly Agree)

4.3 – I enjoyed the program
4.6 – Recommend to others
4.3 – Feel I benefitted
4.1 – Felt involved in the event
4.3 – Well organized
4.5 – Well-prepared teacher

When respondents made the effort to provide narrative feedback, what they had to say was also overwhelmingly positive.

For example:

• Well organized, full of factual info at just the right level.
• Was extremely helpful in understanding this issue that so often goes undetected until it is too late. The use of the videos was very good.
• Self-paced. Appreciated learning about various stress responses and reflecting on my own. How to stay or return to “green.”
• Overall the course was well presented and covered the material well. The course made the important points and repeated them enough to have the student understand the goal of the program and when it is important. This is a difficult topic, and each person will react differently to what is presented.

The course is important and should be appropriately worked into the basic training of all patrollers so that it gets to every new patroller in some way.

What It Means

The better-than-expected response to SIPP and the very positive feedback is more than just numerical values and percentages. They represent the voices and opinions of those who matter most to our organization – our members.

Each student registration documents the importance of the topic of stress injury. Each respondent to the feedback survey represents an individual perspective. Collectively, they paint a mosaic of opinions and experiences. Together the metrics demonstrate the success of Stress Injury Preparation for Patrollers and advocate for wider use of the course throughout the Eastern Division.

To sign up for SIPP click: Stress Injury Preparation for Patrollers.

Stress Awareness. Don’t Be Blindsided, Be Ready!

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.