Carly jammed her ski edges into the side of the mountain to execute a ‘hockey stop.’ Snow cover was dicey this early in the season—heck, the Challenger area had only been open a handful of days so far in November—and the 22-mph wind was blowing straight up the mountain as if intent on blowing what snow there was, clear off the mountain.
The call had come over the radio only two minutes ago. She’d been closest, but she didn’t have the AED—a machine that deciphered a heart’s rhythm and delivered a shock if needed. It would be another two minutes until the other patrollers arrived with the AED and the sled. If the man was truly having a cardiac arrest as reported, brain damage could set in after only four minutes.
She stepped on the back of her bindings to release her boots from her skis. She yanked off her gloves and clipped them to an o-ring on her harness. Then she dropped to her knees next to a slight woman who was performing chest compressions on an older male. Her form wasn’t the best, but anything was better than nothing—and to the woman’s credit, she wasn’t hysterical.
“Thank God you’re here!” Tears streaked the woman’s face. “I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t even know if I’m doing this right!”
“It’s okay.” Carly laid her hand over the woman’s. “You’re doing a great job, but I need you to stop for just a second, okay?”
The woman scrambled off the man. Carly noted the ash-gray pallor of his face as she dug her fingers under his collar. She pressed her fingertips against his carotid artery as she leaned down to put her ear next to the man’s mouth. There were no audible breath sounds, not even a whisper of air coming from his mouth.
And no pulse.
Her own heart rate kicked up a notch.
She grabbed her radio. “Patient in full arrest!” she barked. “I repeat, full arrest.” Her coworkers would know exactly what they were walking into.
“Oh my God. Howard!” the woman wailed.
Wayne’s voice came over the radio. “I’m calling in LifeLink. I’ll have them meet you at the Diamond Hitch turnout.”
“Affirmative.” Carly dropped the radio. She yanked the man’s jacket zipper down, then placed her hands on his chest and started pumping. Getting through the layers of clothing to his bare chest would have to wait for help.
“This can’t be happening!” The woman said. “One moment he’s skiing along, and the next he’s… he’s—”
“Ma’am.” Carly kept her voice steady and firm. “I need you to stay calm. More help is on the way.”
The woman swallowed.
“What’s your name?” Carly said.
“Valerie,” Carly said. “Do you think you could…” She spoke on the exhale of each fourth compression. “Take his skis… and jam them into the snow?” She jerked her chin uphill. “In the shape of an X.”
By the time Valerie did that, her fellow patrollers would already be here, but it helped people to have a mission.
Valerie scrambled to her feet. Carly concentrated on keeping her compressions the right depth and speed.
Sure enough, by the time Valerie had both skis in the snow, Justin had pulled to a stop and was stepping out of his skis. “I’ve got the AED,” he said as he dropped to the ground on the other side of the man.
Justin had worked at a smaller ski resort in California for a couple years and had done well in training, but as far as Carly was concerned, he was still the new kid on the block—and a little too full of himself. “Take over compressions,” she said. “In five, four, three, two, one.”
Justin took over, and Carly yanked her medical scissors from their slot on her pack and cut though first one layer, then a second layer of clothing.
Her fellow patrollers arrived en masse and started prepping the backboard and rescue sled. In her peripheral vision, she saw Janine take Valerie aside. She pressed the AED pads to Howard’s chest, then hit the button that would tell the AED to analyze the patient’s heart rhythm.
“Clear!” she said.
Justin removed his hands from the patient. Seconds later the AED announced: “Deliver shock.”
Carly punched the button that sent an electrical current through the man’s body. As soon as it was safe to do so, she pressed her fingers to Howard’s carotid artery. She shook her head at Justin, and he went right back to pumping. Miles and Reggie moved in with the backboard, and the patrollers worked in tandem to get Howard strapped to the backboard—and then into the rescue sled—with no interruption in compressions.
Miles and Reggie took the long lines that would be used to control the rescue sled from behind on the steep terrain, while Patrick lined himself up at the front handles. “Ready when you are,” he said.
“Switch with me now,” Carly said to Justin. “Half-way down, be prepared to switch again.”
Justin nodded while doing the countdown. As he backed away from the patient, Carly straddled Howard, planting her knees firmly inside the rescue sled. “Go!”
Keeping up a steady rhythm of compressions was harder than it seemed in training, as her abdominal muscles worked continuously to keep her upright on the moving rescue sled. Thank God she’d worked with most of these guys for years and trusted them not to tip or “dump” the sled—along with her and her patient.
She was exhausted by the time Miles called out the mid-point. She rolled off the patient and Justin climbed on. She shook out her arms as she gathered Justin’s skis and poles, then stepped into her own skis where Justin had dropped them.
She caught up to the team, which was moving faster now that the terrain wasn’t as steep. Still, it took several more minutes to reach the rendezvous point next to a seldom-used service road. From the higher vantage point, she could see the ambulance snaking its way up to them.
As the rescue sled came to a halt, Carly snapped out of her bindings. “Check heart activity again.” She dropped to her knees next to the patient; Justin was just as breathless as she’d been.
She reached for the AED. “Clear!”
The AED advised another shock, so she gave the patient one, reminding herself that a shockable rhythm was better than an un-shockable one. “Check pulse.”
She and Justin traded places again, and she watched his face as he checked for a pulse. As far as she knew, he’d never had a patient die on him, and she hoped this wouldn’t be his first. God knew she’d never forget her first.
His face registered concentration, then amazement. “I’ve got one! I’ve got a pulse!”
She placed her ear by Howard’s mouth. “We have air movement!”
The ambulance was pulling up. The paramedics jumped out and Carly stepped back to let them take over.
Less than two minutes later, the ambulance was on its way back down the mountain, siren blaring.
“Wow,” Justin said.
Sometimes there just weren’t words.
She dropped to the snow, the enormity of what had happened washing over her.
They’d done it.
Howard was going to live.
God, I love my job.
Chris was going too fast, and he knew it.
It had taken him hundreds of hours in a simulator to learn—or re-learn depending on how you looked at it—to ski as a paraplegic. Since arriving at Big Sky a few days ago, he’d focused exclusively on running the race course.
Now he realized that focus had left out a critical element of everyday skiing. One he’d expected to have no problem with. Namely: fresh powder snow.
This powder-covered run was nothing like the packed snow of a race course. The uneven and unpredictable pressure of the chopped-up snow was pushing his muscles—already tired from a hard training session yesterday—to the limit.
He shifted his weight back, allowing the monoski’s single tip to protrude from the powder on the turns.
The edge of his monoski plowed into an unyielding pile of snow and yanked his body sideways. His arms flailed and he landed in the powder with a soft oomph.
He lay still, taking inventory of his body parts and giving his heart rate time to slow down. Everything was working, and he didn’t feel any major pain. The monoski was still attached to the base of his chair (thank God for small favors) but one of his arm outriggers was uphill from him.
Damn. I used to eat powder for breakfast!
He rolled himself over and peered downslope through the snow plastered to the top of his goggles. Taylor was just pulling up on the ridge below him; Chris would have to retrieve the outrigger—the ski ‘stem’ that strapped to his wrist and gave him the ability to steer—himself.
He gave Taylor the Okay sign, then started dragging himself uphill.
He’d just about reached the outrigger when a pair of skis appeared above him. “You okay?” The voice was undeniably female.
“I’m fine.” He grabbed the outrigger as she came to a stop a couple feet away from him.
“Can I help?” she said.
He glanced at her; she wore the distinctive red-and-black of the Big Sky ski patrol.
Great, the cavalry has arrived.
“I don’t need help,” he growled. He yanked the strap of his outrigger open and slapped it around his wrist, already regretting his tone of voice.
When she didn’t immediately respond, he chanced a glance at her name tag. Carly.
She propped her goggles on her helmet, drawing his gaze to her face. Her dark-brown eyes demanded his attention. She didn’t look away, as many people did when faced with a disabled skier; in fact, she looked…
He wasn’t sure if he should be impressed or annoyed, so he focused on getting himself upright. He’d done it hundreds of times, so it didn’t take long.
She didn’t move.
“I’m good.” He tried to keep the sarcasm to a minimum. “You can move on.”
“No worries,” she said. “I’ll head down in a bit.”
She meant to stand and watch him, then. As if he’d take another tumble. His annoyance surged.
He gripped the outriggers firmly and pushed off.
He felt her gaze the rest of the way down the hill.