EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018 to include new information.
OGDEN — Dr. Jeff Harrison had to double up on patient appointments at McKay-Dee Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Clinic on Monday so he could fly to Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Wednesday.
But as the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team’s lead team physician, Harrison’s work with the 2018 Olympics has already begun, even though some events had to be postponed due to high winds.
“I can tell the girls are getting nervous right now,” Harrison said. “They’re starting to text me.” He acknowledged the advantage in high-octane skiers having a physician on hand who knows and understands their idiosyncrasies — Harrison began working with 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn when she was 15.
“It helps me understand whether they’re really hurting or are just nervous and need a pat on the back,” Harrison said.
Even though more than 5,800 miles separate Pyeongchang from Ogden, internet and social media advances have also made it possible to offer medical advice at a distance. Early Monday, Harrison and radiologist used FaceTime to help a trainer in South Korea analyze an MRI taken there the night before.
As part of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association physician pool since 1998, Harrison said his orthopedic surgical expertise has taken him to competitions across the world — but this will be his first visit to an Asian country.
And at age 51, his self-described “pretty good” skiing skills come into play when he needs to assess a fallen athlete’s condition mid-slope.
“I’ve responded to a lot of different crashes,” Harrison said, adding that over the last 20 years, “that whole procedure has really changed.”
When serving as venue medical officer for Snowbasin Resort during Utah’s 2002 Winter Olympics, Harrison helped compile an emergency action plan detailing how to respond to various types of injuries at different sections of the courses.
“It really planned out what all the scenarios could be, and graded the injuries as one, two and three,” Harrison said.
Category one injuries are the least serious and allow athletes to get up and ski down the mountain. Category two might be a knee injury that gets taken care of at the clinic below or later in the hotel with their team doctor. And category three — the most serious — could involve potentially life-threatening injuries or fractures to the femur or pelvis. In such cases, athletes generally get airlifted off the hill.
That slope-side delivery of medical services gets further complicated by terrain and weather conditions.
“Sometimes these hills are so steep and icy that you run the risk of injuring the people trying to save them,” Harrison said. Pyeongchang’s temperatures have been hovering in the teens, with strong winds intensifying that cold. But to Harrison, warmer would be worse.
“You almost want it like an ice rink so that when the kids step on their skis, the snow doesn’t break away. When it gets too warm, you get into more injuries or skis hanging up and catching,” Harrison said.
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When not keeping an eye out for medal contenders such as Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, Breezy Johnson and Stacey Cook, Harrison hopes to get the chance to visit the Korean Demilitarized Zone about 50 miles away. And there might be some authentic Kimchi in his future as well. The Korean national dish consisting of spicy pickled cabbage should be easy to find.
McKay-Dee Hospital Intermountain Sports Medicine is also represented by Doug Flint, a physical therapist who has already hit the ground in Pyeongchang where he serves as team physiotherapist for Sweden and Norway’s moguls teams.
Tasked with assessing and managing injuries, Flint is also taking an active prevention role using proper warm ups, custom workouts, and appropriate exercise recovery.
“On competition days, I take care of last-minute physical issues, check equipment, and fit them into their skis properly,” Flint said in a statement. “I also assist the head coach at the starting line with any other issues that come up.”
Via text to Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital Communications Specialist Nathan Alexander on Monday, Flint described PyeongChang’s weather as extremely cold but “nothing that doubling up your coat doesn’t fix,” and said he had very little time to venture beyond the athletes village or Olympic venues. While he’d seen few severe injuries, he was currently treating one athlete for a hurt shoulder and fractured ribs incurred during training.
“That requires some extensive taping and daily care for swelling control, mobility, and pain relief,” Flint said.
Flint lands back in Utah around noon Thursday, and Harrison will return Feb. 26. While in South Korea, Harrison plans to post insights and observations at intermountainhealthcare.org/blogs.