Aging skiers bring new demands for sports medicine

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VAIL, Colo. (AP) — A few years ago, the National Ski Areas Association released numbers confirming the existence of something that many here have enjoyed contributing: an aging skier population.

The association said the average age of skiers and snowboarders jumped from 33.2 to 36.5 in just 10 years, the proportion of visitors aged 45 to 54 has increased from 14 to 19.9 percent and the proportion of visitors aged 55 to 64 has almost doubled from 4.6 to 9.2 percent.

As that demographic shifts, however, it also begins to share a greater overlap with another demographic, one which people have opposite feelings about being a part of: the heart attack demographic.

On April 25, Vail Valley Medical Center debuted a new cardiac catheterization and electrophysiology lab, its latest adaptation to these numbers.

Cardiologist Dr. Jerry Greenberg led a recent tour and shared a story of a man in his 50s who had a heart attack on Vail Mountain recently.

"He walked into PHQ at the top of Chair 4 and said, 'I think I'm having a heart attack,' and he was right," Greenberg said. "He was sledded down to the base of Gondola One, got loaded in an ambulance and taken over to our emergency room. We did an EKG on the patient, and sure enough, he was having a rather large heart attack."

Once in the cath lab, Greenberg was able to insert a catheter into the patient, insert a wire through the blockage and down the artery to get some blood flow going, insert and blow up a balloon to allow more blood flow through the artery, and finally suck out the clot with a second catheter.

This all took place right in Vail, a procedure that before the lab's opening on Feb. 26 would have occurred elsewhere, costing the patient valuable time.

"That's what we do with heart attacks these days," Greenberg said. "It's the treatment of choice."

As far as his patient was concerned, "He actually is skiing," Greenberg said. "I took him off the slopes for about four weeks and he was going out of his mind, so I said, 'Go ski.'"

Since opening on Feb. 26, doctors in the facility have performed 12 cardiac catheterizations, three pacemaker implants, two emergent interventions to stop heart attacks, one electrocardioversion and one AV node ablation and pacemaker — 19 procedures that "saved the lives of the patients who received them," hospital officials said.

Before the lab opened, the hospital would give patients suffering a heart attack medicine to break down blood clots before sending the patient on to another hospital.

"The ideal treatment is to take care of it when it's happening," lab manager K.C. Baker said. "Ideally we stop a heart attack here before the damage has occurred."

Baker said the people they're seeing may be fine at sea level or 2,000 feet.

"But they come up to 8,000 or 10,000 feet ... start to get in extreme conditions and you may uncover something," Baker said. "Both of the heart attacks we took care of were on the mountain that day."

Baker said the remote location, coupled with the fact that travel is difficult at times, has always been something that has reduced the chances of surviving a heart attack in Vail.

"To be able to take care of these patients here is a huge benefit," he said. "We're truly saving lives."


Information from: Vail Daily,

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