Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lessons Learned at the Snow Bowl

“You can observe a lot just by watching,” Yogi Berra said.

So, too, can you learn a lot just by getting off the chairlift.

You can learn, for example, that an athletic 12-year-old girl, who has just made her first run on a snowboard down the Snow Bowl’s Allen trail, is nonetheless susceptible to falling as she gets off the lift.

That when she falls, it’s likely to be on her back. And that she’s probably going to reach her arms behind her to break her fall.

Which vastly increases the odds that like so many boarders before her, she will sprain her wrist as she topples backwards.

Maybe, I learned, she’ll even break something.

* * *

S. and I were spending a fun afternoon last Sunday at the Snow Bowl, a day after she and her mom and I had been at Sugarbush.

Though S. had learned to board just last month, she nailed the Allen on Sunday, the first time we went down it.

We rode the lift back up and were nearing the top, accompanied by C., a boy from her seventh-grade class. We were planning to take our second run on one of the Bowls’ steepest trails, and maybe S. was still a little nervous.

“I suck at getting off the lift,” she warned C. as we neared the top of the smooth new triple chair. “I’ve caused a couple broken arms.”

We laughed at the thought of so unlikely an event. So when she took a tumble as we got off, we didn’t worry much about it. I figured she’d bounce back up, embarrassed and uninjured.

This time, though, she came up holding her left wrist.

“It hurts,” she said with a wince. I checked it for swelling but didn’t see any.

“You don’t have to do this run,” I told her. “We can ride down on the chairlift. People do that sometimes.”

I paused, trying to think how I could make that prospect more inviting. It was probably an embarrassing one for her to contemplate in front of her classmate.
“We’ll do it together,” I assured her. “It’ll be fun.”

“No, it’s OK, I’m fine,” she replied, almost literally shaking it off. I’d seen her do that before, on the skating rink, swimming last summer, at the top of other chairlifts. So I went along with her wishes, thinking this was a slight sprain like the others.

We cruised across the flat summit toward the point where the Allen plunges down to Route 125, a thousand vertical feet below.

S. is a trooper, and she completed another strong run. But she was in obvious pain when we got to the bottom. “How bad does it hurt?” I asked.

“It feels like the last time I broke my arm. Except I’m not nauseous.”

Which wasn’t exactly reassuring.

Another lesson: When you have to choose between embarrassment and safety, opt for the latter. It was becoming obvious that we should have taken the chairlift down.

“OK, kiddo,” I said. “We’re heading straight for the ski patrol room.”

It must have been a slow afternoon, and we presented the college student patrollers with a teachable moment. One of them took charge while two others watched, one of them asking us the standard injury-survey questions.

They first put her arm in a wire mesh splint. It appeared handmade, little more than chicken wire framed in black duct tape.

Somehow I doubt they do it that way at Sugarbush.

I expected the patrollers to prevent S.’s wrist from swelling by using a chemically activated icepack. But the patrollers said they would put snow in baggies and place it on the injured appendage.

But there weren’t even any baggies in the patrol room. There was a delay while someone ran over to the cafeteria to get something in which to put the snow.

“Has the college cut the budget so much that they don’t give you icepacks anymore?” I groused.

“Nope, it’s always been this way,” one of them cheerfully replied. “We figure we’ve got the snow right outside.”

Which is a perfectly fine solution, until you’re halfway down the mountain on the drive to the hospital and the snow is melting all over the injured party.
S.’s mother met us at the emergency room.

We were delighted to find that even on a busy weekend afternoon, the care at Porter Medical Center is first-rate. From the receptionist and nurse to the X-ray technician and physician’s attendant, S. was rapidly routed through an evaluation and splinting by cheerful, knowledgeable professionals.

We breathed a sigh of relief that as a Middlebury College employee, S.’s mother has good health insurance to cover the cost of the care.

Peering at the instantaneous X-ray, I learned it’s possible to incur something called a buckle fracture. The force of the injury doesn’t actually break the bone but compresses it.

I learned S. had been through something like this before – not just once or twice, but three times. At age 4 she incurred a slight fracture falling off a couch. Several years ago she broke her wrist playing in a hay mow. In the summer of 2008, she broke her arm playing soccer while on vacation in Italy.

Turns out she’s had more fractures than the San Andreas Fault.

* * *

But the biggest lesson I learned last Sunday was not about snowboarding slips or broken bones.

I’ve never had children, for reasons both environmental and personal. For much of my adult life, to be honest, I’d regarded myself as not only childless but also child-free.

Kids were great when they were someone else’s, and I certainly enjoyed playing with them. But they weren’t for me. At the end of the day I preferred my own company and that of other adults.

Nonetheless, that’s begun to change in the past year. As S. and I have spent more time together, I’ve learned – duh -- that when you begin to share ongoing experiences with a child, a deeper, instinctive caring takes root. That’s true even if the kid is a maturing tween who is beginning to find her own way in the world, in a process that inevitably means she will sometimes distance herself from adults.

When we left the Porter emergency room, S. and her mom drove to their house. The plan was for me to head back there after shopping for our dinner.

Driving from the hospital to the co-op, I started to tremble. I wondered what that water was in my eyes.

There wasn’t much I could have done to prevent S. from falling. But I felt responsible. She was in my care at the time.

“Things like this happen, even if you’re standing right there,” her mother reassured me afterward. “I’ve learned that sometimes, the best you can do with a child is just to be there. To walk with them as they grow.”

And I learned, for the first and again for the thousandth time, how good it feels to care.

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