Michael Schumacher, the world-famous Formula One race car driver is, as of Friday, still in critical, life-threatening condition after sustaining head injuries while skiing off-piste in the French Alps on Dec. 29. Schumacher was reported to be wearing a helmet at the time of the accident.
"Just a complete fluke," thought Dr. Melinda Roalstad when she heard the news. She operates the Think Head First program in Park City "designed for the management of mild head injury." She has served as medical director for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and established International Ski Federation guidelines for concussion management.
Roalstad had a feeling that the Schumacher accident would rekindle attention on head injuries and helmet use. "It's unfortunate that it has to be a severe accident that does that," she said, while adding that the greater attention is "always good because it gets people talking about it again and thinking about it."
Roalstad performs baseline concussion tests throughout the year on athletes. Baseline testing works by performing a series of mental tests on a healthy individual and then comparing those results with the same tests performed on the individual after a head injury. If certain brain functions are performing poorly, it can be seen by the comparison with the original (i.e., "baseline") test.
Though she largely tests students and young people, one of Roalstad's current focuses is getting more adults tested.
"We see a lot of adult injuries that it would be nice if we had a baseline on them to know what the difference is," Roalstad said. "I think it's a good thing to do at one point in your life to know generally where you fall, so that if you do sustain that injury, you have that [baseline] to help you know where you were before."
"That's something I'd like to encourage and focus more on in upcoming years, trying to get more of the adults into this and actually paying attention to it," she said.
The New York Times ran an article Tuesday titled "Ski Helmet Use Isn't Reducing Brain Injuries." In it, a professor who studies brain injuries is quoted as saying that helmet use "doesn't seem to have much effect on concussions or [traumatic brain injuries]." Roalstad is not comfortable with such conclusions because of the number of mild head injuries that go unreported.
"How do you know?" she said. "Helmets could definitely have lessened the severity and much of what we don't know is how many of these incidents occur that we never hear about. The ones you're hearing about are the severe ones. So I think the issue is -- how do you account for all of those injuries that likely occurred that were mild and where people recovered relatively fast and didn't have ongoing issues? Those are the ones that you never hear about.
"You could have a mild one, never have it reported, and then sustain several other hits within a two- or three-week period, and all of a sudden you're very symptomatic," she said.
The bottom line -- if you're a skier, snowboarder or any other kind of athlete (or even if you're not), think about getting a baseline test.
"It's like a physical exam type thing for your brain," Roalstad said.
Debbie Drain of Park City is familiar with and grateful for Roalstad's tests. On Thursday, her son JonJon, an 8th grader at Treasure Mountain, suffered head injuries while skiing with friends at Park City Mountain Resort. Debbie said the boys were skiing close together through moguls and JonJon's ski tip crossed with the tail of a friend's ski.
"Next thing he knew he was waking up to an adult asking if he was OK," Debbie said.
"These kids are expert skiers," Debbie noted. "They've skied all their lives and ski raced and done AXIS Freeride and all those scary freeride jumps and terrain parks."
JonJon avoided a serious injury.
"Fortunately there was no brain bleed, no orbital or facial fractures and no eyesight damage either," Debbie said. "He had a good helmet on and good goggles and I think that's key."
JonJon has been baseline tested and he'll undergo more testing in the near future. Debbie said he understands the importance of proper treatment of head injuries because his brother Jack suffered a serious head injury during a ski clinic at Utah Olympic Park when the Drains first moved to Park City 11 years ago.
Jack was knocked out "for a good amount of time," Debbie said. He experienced bleeding in his brain and it took months for all his cognitive functions to fully return. Even the third Drain brother, Tommy, suffered a mild concussion while mountain biking years ago.
"They all had helmets, which I think prevented worse situations," Debbie said.
Some good news is that in Park City, "helmet sales are strong," according to Jack Walzer, General Manager at Jans. Walzer has been in the business for 28 years and described the trend as going from nobody even thinking about wearing a helmet to people who won't hit the mountain in even the most-ideal conditions without one.
"What's important in a helmet is the fit systems now," he said. Ease of using ventilation systems and removability of padding for warmer days are also things customers look for. And while Jans has an assortment of colorful helmets, Walzer said the most popular colors are still the old standards: black, grey and white.