The bathroom doubles as a storage closet for crutches, blankets and backboards. Cots line the front, X-ray and examination rooms. And shelves are stocked solid with Ace bandages, splints and syringes of pain medication.
Even though the snowpack is dismal and the season’s end is near, on-mountain injuries keep the Truckee Tahoe Medical Group center at the base of Northstar busy all winter long.
“Weekends tend to be pretty hectic ” and Christmas,” nurse Mollie Kane said last Thursday morning. “We were easily working 10- to 11-hour days. But it’s slowing down now [because of the snow].”
But Kane spoke too soon. Within minutes Northstar ski patrollers wheeled a woman in through the side door and walked another one through the back door. Nearly a dozen more patients followed over the course of the day.
Dr. Rick Ganong has been with the Truckee Tahoe Medical Group for about 20 years. He specializes in internal medicine, but since he began practicing in Truckee-Tahoe he treats more sports-related injuries.
“I sort of developed this niche for sports medicine even before it became ‘sports medicine,'” Ganong said.
The medical group has four locations in Truckee and on the North Shore, two of those are at the base of Squaw Valley and Northstar ski resorts and are open just during the winter.
The Tahoe area has a good reputation for medicine, Ganong said. Most of the doctors have trained at prestigious institutions and keep current on medical theories and treatments. And because the area is a mecca for sports and outdoors enthusiasts, more than a half-dozen sports medicine programs send fellows to the Northstar and Squaw medical centers to study for a few weeks each winter.
The on-mountain offices are equipped to treat fractures, lacerations, concussions and sprains. Patients are transported to Tahoe Forest Hospital for anything more severe.
Both the medical group and the hospital have up-to-date MRI and CT scan technology. But Ganong said they hope to get a system where the two facilities can exchange X-rays via e-mail.
“If we have an X-ray we’re not sure about, we can send it right to the radiologist,” said Ganong.
They are currently discussing whether to invest in the new technology, he said.
Assisting Ganong on a typical day are one nurse, one X-ray technician and a visiting sports doctor. Additionally, the medical center works closely with Northstar Ski Patrol and Northstar Fire Department.
Between the three agencies, the patients themselves and the trail of bystanders, you can see how quickly the medical center could fill up with people. And even though the stress level is almost palpable, the doctors and nurses go about their business in a calm and orderly fashion, assisting the boy with a bleeding spleen first while politely asking the woman with a torn ACL in her knee to wait.
Molly Fletcher and her boyfriend Mike Vidmar were on Spring Break from law school in San Francisco when their trip was cut short. Fletcher fell snowboarding and broke her collarbone in two places. Even though she was able to walk herself to the medical center, she said given her pain she was fortunate she didn’t have to travel much farther to receive treatment.
“I was surprised this [medical center] was here,” Vidmar said. “I thought we were going to have to go down to Truckee to the hospital. I’m glad this was here.”
Fletcher is just one of about 1,000 patients that visit the Northstar medical center each season. On slow days doctors will see about 10 patients and on a busy Saturday upward of 30, Kane said.
Wrists and shoulder injuries are the most common, Ganong said. And the type of season and snowpack can dictate what the doctors look forward to treating.
But like skiing and snowboarding, the injuries themselves are unpredictable, Ganong said.
“It’s a really unique practice, where there are family practice and internal medicine doctors who do this level of sports medicine,” he said.
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