Local EMTs dealing with hectic week

Texas man dies at hotel from altitude sickness

Altitude sickness claimed the life of a 37-year-old man from Texas last Saturday and on Wedneday, a skier was flown by St. Mary’s Careflight helicopter to Grand Junction with a head injury. This is one of the busiest times for the town, meaning it is one of the busiest times for the local ambulance crews.



Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) of the Crested Butte Fire Protection District have spent the last week dealing with everything from a fatality at the Grand Lodge Hotel to kids breaking bones while sledding, adults breaking bones when slipping on the sidewalk ice, to several people complaining of shortness of breath.
“We are extremely busy right now,” explained District Emergency Medical Services (EMS) coordinator Ross Orton. “We will probably run more than 60 calls this month. Usually the last week of December is busier than the first three weeks of the month.”
So far, EMTs have responded to almost 30 calls between Christmas Eve and New Years.
On Saturday, December 27, EMTs were called to treat 37-year-old Christopher Newsome of Pleasanton, Texas, who was thought to be having a cardiac arrest at 4:30 a.m. EMTs and Mt. Crested Butte police responded to the call at the Grande Lodge.
According to Gunnison County coroner Frank Vader, Newsome actually died of high altitude pulmonary edema. “He basically had altitude sickness,” Vader said. “It is serious stuff. He apparently wasn’t feeling good the whole week he was here and his lungs filled up with congestion. Had he gone to the clinic, it is easily diagnosed and the easiest cure is to simply go down in altitude and head to Gunnison.”
Vader said there have been cases of high altitude sickness with people as young as 19 years old. “People coming from sea level that aren’t in good shape are most at risk,” he warned.
Mt. Crested Butte Police chief Hank Smith said altitude sickness can happen to anyone. “We have it here. There is no other cure than going to lower altitude. If you aren’t feeling well, and it’s more than just a headache, see a doctor,” he said.
At 5:30 a.m. the same Saturday, another emergency call came in from a Texas man complaining of shortness of breath. A second ambulance crew was rousted out of bed to handle that call.
“Jeff Isaac, Sean Riley, Beth Shaner and Shannon White really were great to roll out of bed for that call,” said Orton. “We have a lot of dedicated volunteers.”
Orton said the local EMS crew has 42 people on board. Three people at a time are always on call, 24 hours a day. “During this time of year we try to have back-up crews standing by as well,” he said. “On a normal day we might have one or two calls and right now we could have five calls a day. Everyone is really stepping up.”
Given that this is one of the busiest weeks of the ski season, Orton said the EMT crews do a large number of ambulance transfers from the ski area clinic to the Gunnison Valley Hospital. “Those calls have us dealing with trauma situations mainly,” he explained.
“But we also get a lot of people that come up to altitude and have a hard time breathing,” Orton continued. “Taking them down to a lower altitude usually helps and going from 9,300 feet above sea level in Mt. Crested Butte to 7,700 feet in Gunnison usually does the trick. But we also got a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine this year that we have used. It actually pushes fluid out of the lungs and helps people breath easier.”
Orton says overall for the year, he anticipates the call volume for the EMS crew to be up about 13 percent compared to 2007. For December, the crews will take more than 60 calls. “It is definitely a busy time of year but we have a lot of really good people who are stepping up.”
Orton said that a local EMT-Intermediate course was about to wrap up and the ten students in the class will go to Grand Junction at the end of January to take their exams. “That will give us a more highly trained crew and that will help everyone in the long run,” he said.

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