Firsts in Vail
Ryan Summerlin January 5, 2013
VAIL – Dr. James G. Garrick learned all sorts of things treating skiers in Vail during the early 1960s.For example, he learned that most ski injuries were gawd-awful cuts skiers suffered. In those days, people tied their skis to their ankles with a leather strap. When they fell the ski would flail around and hit something – usually their head.And yet like tattoos, eight-track tapes and most political affiliations, those leather straps seemed like a good idea at the time.In 1962-63, Vail Associates sold around 55,000 lift tickets. That number matters because it was never clear that the new ski area would make it, and because Vail averaged about eight injuries for every 1,000 skiers – mostly lacerations. Stitches ensued.Technology has reduced the ticket-to-trauma ratio ten-fold – 0.8 injuries for every 1,000 skiers. Some of that technology started with Garrick’s study in Vail.Hey doc …Timing is everything, and when new doctor’s residency starts in the summer, they have a few months to fill during the winter. That’s how Garrick landed in the upstart ski area, in a clinic in the Red Lion.”We were very fortunate to get some excellent doctors,” said Dr. Tom Steinberg, Vail’s first full-time physician.Vietnam veterans were high on the list. Dr. Jack Eck showed up that way. John Garrett came in 1972 when he was waiting for his residency. Bert Zarins spent some time in Vail. He now heads the sports medicine department at Massachusetts General. The list goes on and on.Garrick was a medical student at Sanford School of Medicine in South Dakota. He was completing his residency at the Mayo Clinic when a professor called him in – usually a bad sign, he said. He made Garrick an offer he couldn’t refuse.”If you would like to take three months off and run a medical facility in Vail, we’ll approve it,” the professor said.Garrick is a practical man. The Mayo Clinic paid residents $200 a month in those days, and he could make lots more than that in Vail – enough to get him through the next year.He started searching medical literature for information about treating ski injuries, but he learned there wasn’t any.”I had no idea what I was going to see,” Garrick said in an article in the magazine “South Dakotan M.D.”If he needed data, and he did, he’d be gathering his own. In Vail, Garrick launched the world’s biggest study of ski injuries in the world up until that time.Garrick’s team of interviewers buttonholed every 100th skier who entered five different ski resorts around the western U.S. Then, they questioned every skier injured, or at least those willing to talk.He got his data, reinforcing his hypothesis that having a ski strapped to your ankle as you fall down a mountainside in the snow is a design flaw.He also learned that high-end tourists can be a little testy.”I don’t think it brings out the best in people if you are paying a trillion dollars to ski in Vail and on the second day you break your leg,” he said.He said he was a terrible skier, but the ski patrol took him skiing everywhere. They enjoyed his company, but they were also making sure he could get to any spot on the mountain in case anything happened to them.Changing everythingIn 1967, after Vail, Garrick was pressed into service as a doctor at an air base near Da Nang, Vietnam. He called his Vietnam service, “great,” and launched another research study, documenting effective management of casualties. Garrick volunteered to extend his Vietnam tour to 15 months to complete it, because it was so important, he said.The ski injury research continued while he was in Vietnam. When he returned, he gathered the data and published an academic paper. Administrators at the University of Washington noticed it. They had already decided care for university athletes should be more scientific. The university’s medical school created a sports medicine department and hired Garrick to direct it.He was among the first to stop putting people in casts, instead mobilizing people as quickly as possible after an injury – an athletic training idea and now common medical practice. Garrick said the head athletic trainer at the University of Washington shaped much of his thinking on treating sports injuries.”He taught me more than anybody in my whole career,” he said. “Trainers were miles ahead of doctors as far as practical management of athletic teams.”Garrick didn’t plan to pioneer a career in sports medicine, it just turned out that way. He founded the country’s first academic sports medicine program and founded a clinic in San Francisco to treat sports injuries. He did research for the NFL Players Association, was the team physician for the U.S. Figure Skating Team and is an expert on dance injuries from working with the San Francisco Ballet.Much of the information for this story came from the magazine “South Dakotan M.D.” It is used here with permission.Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.