Squaw Valley Ski Patrol first in the Sierra to have automatic defibrillator | SierraSun.com
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Squaw Valley Ski Patrol first in the Sierra to have automatic defibrillator

JOELLE BABULA

Cardiac arrest. Within four minutes, without intervention, brain damage begins. At 10 minutes, brain death is certain.

Ten minutes.

Brain death isn’t very far away if your heart ceases to beat and your breathing stops while on a snowy ski slope, miles away from a hospital or advanced cardiac care.

Squaw Valley Ski Patrol wants to bring that care to you. And with their new automated external defibrillator (AED) they can provide a more advanced form of medical care to anyone on the mountain.

“We’re the first patrol group in the Sierra’s to have an automatic defibrillator,” said Karl Earley, the medical coordinator for Squaw Valley Ski Patrol.

Improving survival

According to the American Heart Association’s Basic Life Support Manual for Health Care Providers, CPR can certainly help a patient in cardiac arrest, but “early defibrillation is the link in the chain of survival most likely to improve survival rates.”

Earley, who has been a paramedic for eight years, said it’s rare to bring somebody back using CPR alone.

“I’ve never seen it,” he said.

Early defibrillation means activating the device less than 10 minutes after a victim goes into cardiac arrest. According to the manual, with early CPR and defibrillation at 10 minutes, the patient’s chance of survival is between 2 and 8 percent. With defibrillation at seven minutes the survival rate goes up to 20 percent.

“We can get this machine to any patient on the upper mountain in three to five minutes,” Earley said. “The survival rate goes through the roof if electricity is readily available to the patient.”

Although Squaw has had the AED for almost a year and has not yet had to use it, Earley said there have been instances in the past when the device could have possibly saved a life.

“We had a 43-year-old drop dead from cardiac arrest on the mountain. It (the AED) could have made a difference,” Earley said.

Saving lives

Prior to purchasing the $2,800 machine, the ski patrol relied on outside medical agencies to provide the defibrillation, but since time is such a vital factor to survival when using the device, Earley thought it was important for the ski patrol to have one centrally located on the mountain.

“This machine saves lives, otherwise we wouldn’t have it,” Earley said. “If we just save one person with this unit, it’s well worth the cost.”

The AED is small, portable and is currently stationed at the top of the gondola at the Squaw Valley ski area.

“The machine has been dispatched about five times in the last year, but we haven’t actually had to use it,” Earley said. “We bring it to any unconscious or chest pain patient.”

Currently, five of the 52 ski patrollers at Squaw

are trained to use the device, but Earley said eventually everyone will get certified. Because the defibrillator is automated, individuals no longer have to be doctors, nurses, paramedics or even EMT’s to be qualified to administer the shocks. Traditional machines require the operator to read the patients heart rhythms on an EKG and determine if a shock is necessary. These automated machines however, determine the heart rate and tell the operator if a shock is required.

“Learning to use and operate an automated external defibrillator is easier than learning to perform CPR,” read a paragraph in the American Heart Association manual.

Although the defibrillator doesn’t require extensive training to operate, the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol is now required to operate under a medical director. Dr. Rick Ganong of Truckee-Tahoe Medical Group is the acting medical director for the patrol team.

Squaw Valley Ski Patrol is the first to have an AED on the mountain and it looks as if they’ll be the only ones for the moment.

“We don’t have them and we don’t plan on getting them,” said Larry Heywood, the ski patrol director for Alpine Meadows. “We haven’t had a history of heart attacks and we can get people to the first aid equipment really quickly.”

The ski patrol at Northstar-at-Tahoe is not carrying the device either, but they are thinking about the possibility of implementing the program.

“We’re flirting with the idea,” said ski patrol director Dan Warren. “We’ve had a couple of heart attacks but I don’t think a defibrillator unit on the mountain would have changed the outcome of either one.”

Although Earley and the rest of the Squaw ski patrol have not used the AED yet, Earley said it’s important to have because of the numbers of skiers, snowboarders, ice skaters, snow tubers and tourists on the mountain at one time, especially on weekends and holidays.

“With 14,000 people on the hill on weekends, it’s like a small little city,” Earley said.

Erik Knudson, also a member of the Squaw ski patrol agrees.

“With this new defibrillator machine, we’re giving patients the best care of any ski resorts in the Sierras.”


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