Helmets a necessity when hitting slopes

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— It's a typical Steamboat Monday. It snowed and snowed last night, and your powder clause is in full effect. You woke up before the sun, pressed glass, got on the third chair up Storm Peak and now you are zipping through a winter wonderland. As you make your way around the pine trees beyond the boulder field and head for the glory of your favorite aspen grove powder stash, you don't have a care in the world and you can't stop grinning until impact.

When you regain consciousness, the ambulance crew tells you that you were in an accident and you are on the way to the hospital. The doctor later explains your tests look all right and you are lucky you were wearing your new helmet, because it could have been a lot worse.

Steamboat's legendary tree skiing has a major drawback: When a skier or snowboarder hits a tree, the tree always wins. These types of accidents can cause death or severe brain injury. As director of trauma services at Yampa Valley Medical Center, Dr. Mark Hermacinski has seen everything from minor concussions to resuscitations and emergency flights to Denver.

"I wear my helmet whenever I'm skiing, riding my bike or motorcycle or playing hockey," Hermacinski said. "Helmets are warm and comfortable and not only protect you against life-threatening brain injuries but against facial and scalp lacerations as well."

If you recently started wearing a helmet while skiing or snowboarding, you're using your head. You're also not alone. Helmet sales have increased 25 percent annually over the past five years, making helmets the fastest-growing product category in the snow sports industry. "Helmets are the future. Within the next five years, I expect that almost all skiers and snowboarders will be voluntarily wearing helmets," Hermacinski said.

With a price range of $60 to $170 locally, the cost of a helmet is a bargain compared to the cost of treating a traumatic brain injury. Younger children are especially vulnerable to brain injury because they have bigger heads and higher centers of gravity than older children. Men have twice the risk of traumatic brain injury than women.

A recent study by the Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that skiers and boarders who wore helmets had a 50 percent lower head-injury incidence than non-helmet users.

No state has yet passed a law requiring the use of helmets while skiing or snowboarding for any age group, but the American Medical Association, the Brain Injury Association and the National Safe Kids Campaign all support the voluntary use of helmets while engaging in winter sporting activities.

"The most effective way to prevent a head injury is to ski and snowboard in control and wear a helmet," Hermacinski said.

If you've been thinking about getting a helmet for yourself or a loved one, this is a great time to do so. For about the same price as a dozen roses, you can say "I love you" with a gift that will offer safety and protection for years to come.

Bonnie Boylan is public relations coordinator for Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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