Natasha Richardson, head injuries, and skiing

Natasha Richardson. Photo by Khedara Ariyaratne (Creative Commons)

Natasha Richardson. Photo by Khedara Ariyaratne (Creative Commons)

Natasha Richardson’s death has hit me a bit hard. Not because I was a huge fan of hers – I’m not sure I’ve even seen her in anything – but for a couple of other reasons.

First of all, there she was, having a fun day, life planned to go on as usual, and then a little accident happened, and two days later she was dead. I think about how I would feel if that had been my wife. We have a friend whose wife died very suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. You get these little reminders every so often that it could be over for no good reason any time, though it probably won’t be. But to add to it, we were skiing at Tremblant a week before Richardson was. My wife fell down a few times. But she knows how to fall on ice, anyway (and it was a bit icy!) – she’s a skater.

Secondly, my wife’s mother slipped on a sidewalk last month, when it was really icy, and hit her head hard. She had to wait about 7 hours in Emergency (because the nearest ER was one of Canada’s busiest, and it was an icy day, and my wife and her mother got to see a nearly endless parade of people with colds and flus crowding up an emergency room they had no need to be in, too). She hit it so hard that, though she hit it on the back, she had bruising in her eye. And yet… she’s OK. Still recovering a bit, still getting some hearing back and so on, but she survived and looks like she could be around for decades yet.

And that’s the thing about head injuries. A big thing can turn out OK, and a little thing can turn out to be a very big thing. The blood starts pooling, but you feel fine at first… Reports are that Richardson declined the first ambulance that came because she was feeling fine. Some are suggesting that she might be alive today if she had taken that one instead of waiting until she actually felt like she needed one.

But much still remains to be found out. She took a spill on soft snow and didn’t even seem to have hit her head. It’s possible that something else was going on… I’m sure someone is already suggesting how the fall could have been the first symptom rather than a cause of the brain problem (you can tell I’ve watched too much CSI). One suggestion I’ve read is that it was an aneurysm. I had a friend who died of a brain aneurysm. Actually, my great-grandmother died of one, too. And you generally have no idea they’re coming. But they’re usually a good deal more sudden than what Richardson experienced. My great-grandmother had just enough time to declare she had an awful headache, and that was it. My friend simply lost consciousness abruptly (I wasn’t there at the time for either).

The other big issue that this is sure to stir up is the safety of skiing and the advisability of helmets while doing so. We do hear of people being killed in skiing accidents every year. Usually it’s while doing something more than a bit reckless – avalanches triggered while skiing on closed slopes or outside of ski area boundaries are common lately, and some fairly famous people have hit trees at high speed; one of them was playing catch football with one hand while holding a video camera with the other, while zipping down a slope.

There’s certainly no question that one needs to ski in control and heed closures and warnings. And a lot of people have a poor sense of control. A friend of mine needed major surgery on her leg after it was impaled on a tree when she was hit by someone bombing down the slope who just piled into her. Common sense is often quite lacking on the slopes – it’s amazing how many snowboarders will sit down just over a rise so that they can’t be seen from above. I’ve nearly wiped out avoiding hitting a couple of such fools. People who ski waaaayyyy back and forth across busy trails, edge to edge, are another issue for me: I’ve nearly been driven into trees by them, constantly expecting them to turn back and so trying to go around the outside.

And I do see more helmets. But are they necessary? I’ve never worn one. My wife is suggesting getting some. And certainly they are good for preventing minor head injuries. Some people suggest that they incline people to skiing more recklessly, however. And a study I read about in a very interesting article found that helmets don’t make a real difference on soft snow and don’t help enough when you hit something hard like a tree. Statistics (according to the article) show that, while helmets reduce deaths due to head injuries, they don’t reduce overall deaths. In other words, in those really bad accidents, if the helmet keeps the head injuries from killing you, other injuries will do the job after (head injuries tend to act more quickly, I believe). And, again, there’s the chance that skiers with helmets may be more likely to get into accidents. But, as is also pointed out, fatal injuries while skiing are very rare: one death per 1.5 million skier days. What you really need to look out for is all those non-fatal injuries. You could be paralyzed, for instance. Or you could get a concussion.

Or you could just break a leg. I did. In grade 8. Skiing on an “easy” slope. Actually, we took a wrong turn, skied down a side trail and into a dip; my brother wiped out, and then I, trying not to ski into him, wiped out in a twisting fall and my ski stuck in the snow. My bindings were not properly adjusted (I’d bought the skis at a ski swap). Which reminds me of the single best bit of safety advice for skiers: make sure your bindings are properly adjusted and your skis tuned up – and knock all the snow off your boots before stepping in, so they don’t come off unexpectedly.

And, even after all that, sometimes something happens and there’s nothing you could do to predict it. And maybe you respond soon enough. And maybe you don’t. Sometimes you can’t. But there’s nothing to be gained from worrying about those things happening. Just appreciate what you have. And look both ways when crossing the street.

Update: The latest news is that the cause of death was indeed a head injury – or, rather, the large blood clot that formed as a result of it. I’m sure we’ll hear more details in the coming days. Perhaps this is one of those rare cases where wearing a helmet would have saved a life.

I wonder whether my mother-in-law will wear a helmet next winter. They say an hour may have made the difference for Natasha Richardson. My mother-in-law waited seven hours at East York General before anyone even really looked at her… (But, by the way, I’ve lived in the US, and I’ll take Canadian health care any day, even still.)

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