When a ski holiday ends in hospital

Every day, 1,000 skiers are taken to hospital Keystone

The hospital and not the hotel is where 44,000 people travelling to Switzerland this winter will end their ski holiday.

This content was published on February 22, 2005 - 12:04

As alarming as the statistics is the trend towards more serious injuries suffered on the slopes.

A red and white helicopter of the Swiss Air Rescue service, Rega, lands at the hospital in Interlaken.

It is carrying a woman whose face is smeared in blood. She is brought into the emergency ward where doctors get to work stitching up a deep, long gash across her forehead.

"She collided with another skier, and has quite a serious wound on her forehead," says head doctor Paul Günter. "She says the other skier involved in the accident was going so fast she didn’t see him coming."

It is the middle of February and the height of the ski season. The hotels in Swiss ski resorts are fully booked, and so are the hospital beds. In Interlaken one in four is occupied by an injured skier.

Günter says when the slopes are busy, so are his doctors, who have to treat more than 20 people on such days.

X-ray

"About half of those are minor injuries such as a sprained thumb or broken forearm, but the rest are much more serious," says Günter, looking at an x-ray of a knee held together by pieces of metal (see picture).

"This is a tibia plateau fracture, a fracture of the lower leg and knee," he explains.

"The knee has to be reconstructed and it has to be done by an experienced surgeon. If it isn’t done correctly, the knee won’t function properly and the person will develop arthrosis after a couple of years.

"It’s what can happen when you hit something at high speed, and is the type of injury we are seeing more often."

Faster than ever

Günter says the injuries resemble those suffered in road accidents, and says that should come as no surprise since skiers are going faster than ever. "They can easily reach speeds of 80kmh," he says.

As a Social Democratic member of the Swiss parliament, Günter is planning to introduce a motion during parliament’s spring session to make skiing safer.

Günter wants to see ski patrols introduced at Swiss resorts with the authority to rein in reckless skiers.

His view that injuries are becoming more serious is supported by Rega.

The rescue service says its helicopters are flying fewer people to hospital with broken bones, but more with dislocated shoulders, wrenched knees and back injuries.

Ski resorts are cool to the ski patrol idea because of the high costs this would entail, and counter that the number of injuries has not risen over the past few years.

According to the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention, about 110,000 people (66,000 residents of Switzerland, 44,000 foreign tourists) are injured skiing each year, and that figure in real terms has changed little since the council began compiling statistics in 1998.

Although people are skiing less frequently – Swiss cable car companies have reported a five per cent drop over the past five years – there has not been a corresponding reduction in ski accidents.

Right perspective

Markus Hostettler, director of the ski lift company in Adelboden, adds that the high numbers have to be put in perspective. He says on an average day, 6,000 paying customers use the runs in this Bernese Oberland resort alone.

"Just imagine how many injuries there would be if that many people were cycling or playing football in one place at the same time," Hostettler says.

"It’s true that skiers expect us to do an excellent job grooming the runs, and we also make the slopes quite wide nowadays, so skiers find it hard to resist going fast," he admits.

Hostettler also supports the widely held view in Switzerland that people have to take responsibility for their own actions, and must be aware of the risk.

Lose control

According to the accident prevention council, nine out of ten injuries are not caused by collisions but by skiers losing control of their skis because they are going too fast.

"We think most accidents happen because people overestimate their skiing ability, or are not in good physical condition," says the council’s Rolf Moning.

Surprisingly, the council says alcohol plays an insignificant role in accidents, even though alcoholic beverages are widely available at restaurants and bars directly on the ski slopes in many resorts.

The accident prevention council is more concerned about reducing the number of head injuries, since these account for ten per cent of the total. It has launched a campaign to promote the wearing of helmets.

Helmets

A survey it carried out has found that only 13 per cent of skiers and 20 per cent of snowboarders wear helmets regularly, with most saying that they simply never think of wearing one, or find them uncomfortable.

Günter recommends the wearing of helmets for children but cautions that head protection can give skiers a false sense of security.

His fears are partly borne out by the survey, which discovered a higher proportion of "men and good skiers wearing helmets than average skiers".

"I know there’s a risk of injury," says a German snowboarder in Adelboden, after stopping half way down the slope to catch his breath.

He says he thinks he reaches speeds of 60kmh with his snowboard. "We have to take many risks in life, so why not this one because it’s a lot of fun," he concludes.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Interlaken and Adelboden

In brief

The Swiss Council for Accident Prevention estimates that 110,000 people are injured skiing or snowboarding each winter.

The council says it thinks most accidents occur because people overestimate their abilities and cannot keep their skis under control while going fast.

Leading doctors and the Swiss Air Rescue service believe the increased speed of skiers has led to injuries becoming more serious.

The head doctor of the Interlaken hospital is presenting a motion in the Swiss parliament calling for the introduction of ski patrols.

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