The New York Times just posted an article reporting the chief medical examiner’s assessment of what killed actress Natasha Richardson, who took a fall on Monday during a beginners ski lesson at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Quebec. The autopsy indicated that Richardson died of a brain hemorrhage caused by “blunt impact.” After her fall, the actress initially turned down medical treatment. Later a “crushing” headache caused her to seek care. She died on Wednesday at New York City’s Lenox Hill Hospital.
How would this event have played out if Richardson had been wearing a helmet? We asked our go-to adventure-sports columnist, Doc Wild, or Christopher Van Tilberg. M.D., who specializes in wilderness, travel, and sports medicine, to give us his thoughts:
“Do helmets save lives? Sure. We wear them biking, climbing, playing hockey, and kayaking, but they have yet to become universally accepted with skiing and snowboarding. They may not offer fail-safe protection from a high-speed collision with a stationary object like a tree, but they certainly offer some protection for impact with rocks and ice while carving the slopes.
“In the case of Natasha Richardson, it’s hard to say whether a helmet would have saved a life. An internal bleed inside the head occurs when the brain gets shocked inside the skull. That can happen when the brain gets jostled, even thought the impact may be minor, or the impact is against a soft surface. Sometimes this occurs with football players, who wear a helmet and hit soft turf, but still sustain a brain bruise or bleed.
“The bottom line, helmets do help protect your noggin. They also provide a huge ammount of warmth. And, any head injury, even if it seems minor, should be evaluated by a doc.”
We’re going to take this as wake up call to all snowseekers (and cyclists, skateboarders, etc.) of all skill levels to make wearing a helmet the status quo while enjoying the slopes or backcountry. It’s peculiar that our precious i-Phones and laptops are cradled in protective gear and yet our craniums are not.
The good news is that, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), helmet usage in the U.S. is up: From 2007/08, 43 percent of skiers and boarders overall wore helmets (that’s up from 25 percent in 2002/03). Kids get the highest helmet-wearing marks (thank goodness), followed by advanced riders at 55 percent. In contrast, only 26 percent of beginner skiers wear helmets, and men aged 18 to 24 are the least likely age group to keep it covered (at 32 percent).
The NSAA cites that, on average over the last decade, only 39 people have died a year due to skiing and snowboarding accidents, making it twice more likely to get struck by lightning than to die on the slopes. Still, with participation on the rise, the number of fatalities has gone up, too. In 2007/08, 53 people died on from injuries sustained while skiing or snowboarding.
- Nat Geo Expeditions