Trauma surgeons at St. Charles Bend are warning of treacherous conditions at area sno-parks after two adults were paralyzed in sledding accidents on consecutive days over the past week.
The hospital has seen four other serious sledding injuries this winter, including broken pelvic bones and concussions, mostly at the Wanoga
Sno-Park. St. Charles doctors have also seen a number of slip and fall accidents across the region, resulting in broken hips and other injuries.
“During the winter time, it’s very normal for us to see people come in with minor injuries from sledding crashes,” said Dr. Mary Condron, a trauma surgeon at the hospital. “Two days in a row, we had adults come in paralyzed from sledding crashes, and that is not normal for what we tend to see for injury patterns.”
One of the patients is Katie Ciancetta, 48, of Salem, who was tubing with her family at Santiam Sno-Park by the Hoodoo ski resort. After a few runs on the easier slope, they climbed to the top of larger slope, and Ciancetta started down as her husband and son watched from the top.
As she sped down the icy slope, the inner tube spun around so she was heading down backwards. She flew over the berm at the bottom of the slope, hitting a tree, still gripping tightly to the handles of the tube.
“I hit the tree with my head, and a frozen tree and head don’t do well together,” she joked from her hospital bed on Friday. “I knew something was wrong as soon as I gained consciousness.”
Ciancetta, a high school teacher at West Salem High School, was fortunate that a paramedic and a physician were at the sno-park that day with their families and witnessed the accident. They immediately provided first aid, trying to control the bleeding and stabilizing her spine, and called for a helicopter to fly her to the hospital. The paramedic’s wife comforted Ciancetta’s 8-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, wrapping him in a blanket as the medical personnel tended to her.
She arrived at the hospital with no feeling below her waist. A CT scan revealed a broken vertebra just below the level of her shoulder blades and hairline fractures in adjacent vertebrae. Ciancetta was taken immediately for surgery to fuse her spine.
Condron said the other case of paralysis, which occurred at the Wanoga Sno-Park, happened in a similar fashion. Hospital officials could not comment on that patient’s condition due to privacy rules.
“These were people riding their sleds in the way they were intended to be ridden on established sledding hills,” she said. “They weren’t hot-dogging. They weren’t doing anything dramatic at all, and fell and broke their backs.”
Condron said helmets might help prevent concussions or traumatic brain injuries, but there is no way to prevent spinal injuries other than an abundance of caution.
“You hit a little bump and get kicked in the air, and you land wrong, which is really easy to do,” she said. “The impact gets transmitted to your bones in your spine, which happened in both cases.”
Temperatures at Wanoga Sno-Park over the past week have oscillated from lows in the mid-teens to highs in the low 40s — a melt-freeze cycle resulting in very icy conditions.
Condron recommended that sledders wait until the sno-parks receive more snow and conditions improve.
Serious sledding injuries are more common around the U.S. than many might imagine. In 2012, doctors at the University of Michigan Medical School documented 52 sledding injuries at their pediatric trauma center over a nine-year period. Thirty percent of those children were hospitalized, and 10 percent incurred a permanent disability.
In 2010, researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, estimated there were nearly 230,000 sledding injuries nationwide serious enough to warrant an emergency room visit over a 10-year period. Half the injuries involved a collision, with a third resulting in a head injury and a quarter in broken bones.
Ciancetta said her family enjoys going tubing at the Santiam Sno-Park every winter.
“We love the snow. Every year, we try to make it there and do some sledding,” she said. “We’ve definitely had some crashes there, but nothing that knocked us out. We were able to walk away from all of it.”
She blames her accident, in part, on the inflatable tube, which she said is hard to control.
“In hindsight, we shouldn’t have been using it,” she said.
Ciancetta will likely stay at St. Charles into next week and then may be transferred to a rehab facility in Portland. She hopes to get back to teaching by August, whether in a wheelchair or on her feet. Doctors have given her a 10 percent to 20 percent chance of walking again.
“The reality of this kind of injury, unsure is the word,” Ciancetta said. “It’s a long journey. I’m looking at a year of a lot of hard work.”
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