Lessons for a doctor on the Ski Patrol

Is the scene safe?

This is the first thing that you, as a member of the National Ski Patrol, need to ask and assess when coming upon a scene.

As a doctor, I can tell you: they do not teach you this in med school.

When becoming a doctor, you learn how the body works as best we currently understand it. You study how substances affect the body, from illegal drugs to those we buy, in hopes of a better life. You learn how to fix broken bones, how to stitch someone back together. You learn how to get consent for treatment, how to bill for your services, and how to maintain patients’ privacy and dignity. You learn how to work as a team with patients, families, with your colleagues of different specialties and fields, and with administration. You learn how to react if you accidentally have a needle stick, or what to do if you get sick, or have an emergency in your life outside of medicine that requires your attention. But, honestly, you know that your work is important, and the spoken or unspoken message is usually: you show up anyway. You feel bad for your human needs, embarrassed that you have them. You sacrifice yourself because your patients need you. You put more pressure and stress on yourself than you would ever accept for someone you are taking care of or someone you love. Eventually, you become so disconnected from your human needs that you may simply feel you don’t have them. In a system where everything you do, you do because you believe that every human life matters and the quality of that life matters, you don’t give your life the same weight or respect.

So when life gives you the opportunity to participate in an activity other than doctoring, you sometimes learn amazing lessons that you had never been taught despite decades of training, practice, education, and certification.

The opportunity to volunteer with the Ski Patrol has been life and mindset-changing for me.

I had allowed the sacrificial mindset of my chosen career to also be the prevalent theme in my personal life. There really was no space for me or my needs on any given day, personally or professionally. I was wrung out and empty.

But life changed, as it always does. And suddenly, with those changes, I now had the opportunity, amidst the challenges, to make choices for myself. To decide how I could honor my need and desire to serve and help others, while also finding my voice and staying true to myself, my passion, and my personhood.

Being on the Ski Patrol has always been a lifelong dream of mine. For a time, I wasn’t allowed to pursue this dream. But then, I got to decide.

And it was scary.

I had never worked with patients from the perspective of a first responder. I had, as a physician, the ability to march into a room authoritatively, greet a patient and family, already gowned, information prepared for me, ready for my consultation or procedure. Our spaces were clean and prepped, our systems in working order to promote efficiency and excellence in care. I knew within reason what to expect, where my patients would be, and what support I would have to meet their needs.

I was used to all sorts of systems and comforts that were not available to me as someone responding to a potential accident scene on a mountainside.

But I quickly learned that through the training program to prepare myself and other candidates for joining the Ski Patrol, that despite the uncertainty of working in that setting, there were clear systems in place. There were protocols and training to promote safety, efficiency, and excellence despite the challenges and limitations one faces when responding to a scene on the ski hill.

I never expected that while on the Ski Patrol, I would come to realize that I had never felt more safe in a care setting than I did working with my fellow patrollers.

Because the number one priority in any scene was the safety of the Patrollers. And we all made sure, every moment, that we were keeping ourselves and one another safe.

It may sound counterintuitive at first, but it is truly essential for the safety of everyone involved. A Ski Patroller engaging in an unsafe scene in an unsafe way creates a problem of potentially two injured people or worse. Now two toboggans need to be taken down the hill potentially, and twice as many patrollers are needed to deal with the scene. How many volunteer patrollers does your hill even have? If you are hurt, how will you deal with this scene and the rest of the mountain you are there to cover? You can’t help someone if you sacrifice yourself. This is of course leaving out how much value you have to everyone and everything in your life off of the ski hill, as well. The life that is waiting for you after your shift.

Once you respect this truth and accept the incredible value that you have as a member of the team and as a person, you recognize in a different way your responsibility to yourself, your team, and the people you are there to serve. You have to take care of yourself. You have to speak up when you need something. You have to hold back if it means staying well or alive so that you can be there to do your job the first moment you can safely step in.

Unlike what often happens in medicine, when you are urged to take on the extra shift even after you have done ten in a row and are emotionally and physically spent with a family needing you at home. When you were expected to show up even when it jeopardized your own health. When you were consistently pushed past what most would consider the breaking point and asked for more. And you did it because you really love what you do, you really care about your patients and their lives, and you really want to make a difference.

But as they say, you can’t fill from an empty cup. You can’t fight the good fight if you’re knocked out. You have to take care of yourself to take care of others.

The Ski Patrol was the place where I learned that the first step in helping is to ensure the helpers’ safety. I will carry that lesson with me and regift it to as many people as I can, always.

Shafer Stedronova is a physician and life coach.


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