By Marshal Thompson, NSP-Subaru Ambassador
My path to becoming a ski patroller started 51 years ago in an upstate New York hospital where a young 19-year-old college student lay in a hospital bed planning her own funeral with her mother. This young girl was about to undergo another surgery for massive internal injuries, acute renal failure and severe respiratory compromise; the surgeons gave her a 1 in 10 chance of surviving surgery and zero chance of survival without it.
A few weeks prior on February 11, 1968, the young girl was skiing at Windham Mountain Resort in New York. The girl, admittedly, was skiing on the brink of control just above her ability, when she collided with a lift tower. In 1968 lift towers were not padded and the right side of her body smashed into the concrete and steel of the lift tower. The collision crushed her chest causing massive internal hemorrhaging, pneumothorax, ruptured liver and an avulsion of the renal artery off of the aorta. When Ski Patrol arrived on scene, she was unresponsive and rapidly deteriorating as the massive internal hemorrhaging filled her abdominal cavity with blood. The Windham Ski Patrol did what they could on scene and transported her to the base area where they awaited an ambulance. With no ambulance available, the patrol was nervous, at one point telling the girl’s close friend that she would die if she did not get to a hospital soon. After about 2 hours the young girl’s lifeless body was being loaded into a hearse for transport to the nearest hospital when she blinked letting them know she was still alive. At the hospital it was confirmed, she was still alive. Without Ski Patrol rushing to her side and giving her the on-mountain treatment and care they did, there is a good chance that girl would have died.
The girl in this story is my mother who continues to ski to this day. Skiing is her passion — a passion she passed on to her husband and children. As soon as I could stand, my parents had me on skis. Both of my parents worked extremely hard so our family would have the opportunity to ski as much as possible and enjoy the outdoors, a pastime they loved.
Living in Massachusetts and preparing to start a family, my parents purchased a small ski/lake cottage in Vermont. Not a weekend went by that my parents did not load my brother, sister and myself into the family car and drive to our tiny cottage in Ludlow, Vermont, where we’d ski in the winter and play on the lake in the summer. It didn’t matter how cold or blustery it was, my parents were so passionate about skiing that as long as the lifts were running, the Thomson family would be skiing. Not even negative 10-degree temperatures or sideways winds were going to stop my family from skiing. My brother and I complained far less than our older sister, but she also toughed it out for many frost-nipped, soggy, hot cocoa and bagged lunch filled years, realizing this is what the family did — we skied.
When I was 10 years old, our family made the permanent move from Massachusetts to our beloved ski town of Ludlow, VT, home of Okemo Mountain. My parents did everything they could so we could ski as many days as possible without interfering with school. Over the years both of my parents worked for the Okemo Race Department as gate keepers and race crew. My mom spent countless hours sitting in the NASTAR booth calling out race times and awarding medals — all so that the family could afford to ski and my brother and I join the race teams.
Although my mother had an amazing recovery, there were some lingering health issues as a result of her accident. She suffered many seizures throughout our childhood, therefore my brother, sister and I learned how to give IM injections on fruit and vegetables so that we could inject mom with benzodiazepines if a seizure should happen while we were around. I was 13 or 14 when my mom called me from my room. Peacefully laying in the living room recliner, she calmly asked me to go to the refrigerator and get her medication. Panicking, I did what she asked. I drew back the medication and began the injection. As I slowly started to press the needle into her skin, I was so nervous I was going to hurt her. There was my mother, seizing, having her son press a syringe halfway into her thigh, yet she was still able to calmly tell me it was ok and to just push the needle in all the way.
This was just one of countless seizures my mom had during my childhood, including on my first trip to Disney Land, which was spent in the medical facility after a seizure. Yet, I don’t remember a single day that my mom’s sickness kept her from putting on her ski boots and taking the family skiing. Her passion for skiing and love of sharing it with her family proved stronger than any disease.
On Easter day 1968 a little more than two months after her accident, my mother’s one remaining kidney began to function on its own, she was free from fever for the first time in months, and she took her first breaths without the help of a ventilator and supplemental oxygen. Most people would say that her accident was bad luck, but not my mom; she says it was a blessing. After surviving the accident, a tracheostomy, 13 surgeries, 32 blood transfusions, thrice weekly hemodialysis, loss of one kidney, massive infections, months of fever, pulmonary emboli, seizures and cardiac arrest, she returned to school a year and a half later. Upon her return to school, a boy approached her, he informed the young girl that the college held a blood drive for her, and he had donated his blood. He told the girl that in return for his donated blood she owed him a date. That boy is my father. He and my mother have been happily married ever since, raising a family in the mountains of Vermont and sharing their love of skiing and the mountains. Both of my parents are still avid skiers on the slopes of Okemo and make a trip to Colorado in the winters to ski with their children and grandchildren.
I have always looked up to ski patrol, knowing that they are the coolest and most badass people in the world. If it were not for dedicated patrollers, my mom would not have survived, and I would not be here. From the first time I saw my mother cry when telling her story, to the first time I saw a real ski patroller help someone, and the first time I heard an avalanche explosive, I knew this was something I wanted to do with my life. I am now a ski patroller at Crested Butte Mountain Resort, training an avalanche dog, Skadi. Nothing makes me prouder than wearing the cross on my jacket and working with my avalanche dog, helping to keep everyone safe and possibly turning someone’s day of “bad luck” into a blessing, just like the Windham Ski Patrol did for my mother and father. I have always known that ski patrolling is truly in my blood.