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Skiing trip turns into nightmare

Don’t believe the rumors. John Jarstad didn’t die in a skiing accident in Canada.

But the Federal Way doctor wondered if he’d see his home, family and patients again after breaking his leg so badly on a remote Alberta mountain slope that he had to endure life-threatening complications.

It’s a tale of survival that Jarstad doesn’t mind telling but vows to avoid repeating. The 46-year-old avid skier who had never so much as “sprained a pinkie” in a virtual lifetime of snow sports is swearing off the helicopter skiing that landed him in hospital after hospital last month.

Jarstad was among a group of skiers who were helicoptered up a mountain in Golden, about 90 minutes from Banff. They were making their last run down the slope at about 4:30 p.m. March 16 when they encountered a jump with a 30-foot drop.

“I knew I’d made a mistake as soon as I went over,” Jarstad said. As he landed and tried to negotiate a narrow landing area, his left knee and lower leg shattered in 12 places. The sight of the leg, bent into impossible angles, made some of his ski mates sick. Jarstad, an eye surgeon who worked in hospital emergency rooms while a medical student, didn’t need their reaction to know that “I was in bad shape.”

His experience in ERs was crucial as he directed his own rescue. Except for Brian Young, a Mayo Clinic doctor who trained Jarstad in eye surgery, there was virtually no one in the party with any expertise in treating a seriously injured skier. There were no rescuers nearby, either.

“Brian told me, ‘Sorry, buddy, we’re an hour away from help. You’re going to have to bite the bullet,’” Jarstad recounted.

One of the skiers had a snowboard. Jarstad told them to lash him to it, tie his mangled leg to his right leg for an impromtpu splint, and then pull him by his arms to where the ski helicopter –– alerted by a skier who had gone ahead –– was waiting to fly him to a lodge and a waiting ambulance.

The hour-long trip down the mountain, in temperatures in the teens and with nothing to relieve the pain in Jarstad’s leg, was excruciating. “It was real painful every time we went over a bump, and there were a lot of bumps,” he said.

Since the accident, there have been “a lot of rumors” in the Federal Way community “that I might have died,” he said. He wasn’t so sure himself while stlil on the mountain.

“I was worried I might not make it. I had some pretty dark moments,” he said. “I kept myself going by focusing on how much I wanted to see my family again –– we just had our first grandchild –– and that I couldn’t leave my patients.”

Once he was in the helicopter, “I knew I’d be alright,” he said.

But the close calls weren’t over. After surgery the next day at a Banff hospital to repair his leg by grafting bone from his hip to the splintered limb, blood clots traveled from the leg to his lungs, causing his temperature to skyrocket and robbing him of oxygen. He also developed a condition that required both sides of the leg to be slit open from knee to ankle to relieve pressure.

The latter procedure was done at a second hospital after an hour-plus ambulance ride. For two days, he said, he lay with his “filleted” leg and received eight blood transfusions to keep up with constant bleeding. To fight the pain, he was given morphine every hour.

Eight days after his accident, Jarstad was flown in a Lear jet to Seattle for another week of hospitalization at Harborview Medical Center. He returned to his home March 31, Easter Sunday, confined to a wheelchair but with a bright prognosis.

“I’m going to be able to keep my leg and I could be back at work in about a month,” he said.

The doctors who took care of him in Canada “were great, but my experience in ERs helped me make a contribution when they asked me to consult with them. It helped keep me alive,” Jarstad said, adding he now knows firsthand that “patients have a lot of insight into what’s bothering them. I’ll listen much more closely to what my patients tell me.”

As for whether he’ll ever ski again, he will.

“At first I said absolutely not, my skiing days are done,” he conceded. Instead, he’ll “stick to resorts,” where ski patrols are ready for injuries and rescues, he said. No more helicopter skiing for him.

He noted that in 35 years of skiing, including competition that led to a tryout for the 1976 Olympics, “I’d never been hurt. I thought I was invincible.”

Now he knows otherwise.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and editor@fedwaymirror.com.

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