When I heard the devastating news last night about Natasha Richardson, I nearly fell to my knees. It's not that I am or was a particularly devoted fan of hers or tend to get overly interested in celebrity news. It's the simple fact that this 45-year-old mother hit the slopes just a few days ago with her two boys--something I do all of the time. She had no big intentions--she wasn't headed for the terrain park or double blacks or high altitude bowls. She simply went out for a spin on the beginners slope and ended up dead.
By the time I hit the gym this morning, it was all anyone was talking about. I'm sure a lot of the interest was due to a shared sense of projection--most of us there are mothers in our 40s and 50s. What I didn't share with my gym mates, however, was a general sense of "you just never know when it's your time to go." It's a concept I do generally embrace (and I thus try to make hay while I can), but as a skiier and health journalist, it's a notion I flat out reject in this very tragic case.
Bottom line is Richardson should have been wearing a helmet. It doesn't make a damned bit of difference that she was on a beginners' slope or that she was with an instructor or that she was a glamorous movie star who didn't want to look like a geek. The fact is that it just takes one blow to the wrong spot to ruin a life. Some may counter that you can't spend your whole life in a helmet, worrying about the random brick that might fall from above or the unfortanate slip down icy stairs. And that's true. But here's the difference: Skiing is not a situation you "suddenly" find yourself in. It's an activity that has its own inherent risks and--just like driving--we should take every precaution we can to minimize our chances of becoming a statistic. We wear seat belts. We use car seats. And yes, we should all be wearing helmets when we ski, bike or are otherwise deliberately put our brains on the line.
Should ski helmets become law? I personally think it sounds like a good idea but the big ski resorts counter with the unappealing logistics of renting and cleaning helmets and then policing their resort guests. I say let everyone argue and waste time. But any adult with brain (yup, that's pretty much all of us, I think) can make the right decision now.
And I'm NOT talking about merely telling the kids to wear helmets, which I think is one of the most misguided concepts going. A parent who goes bare headed next to her child is basically sending the message that "babies" wear hemlets and "cool grown-up people" get to go bare headed. (They're not cool, they're idiots.) Secondly, as we've seen with Richardson, head injury is an equal opportunity debacle. You may be an expert on the slopes, but all it takes is one out of control snowboarder to smash into you and wreak havoc on your life. And sometimes, all it takes is a quirk of fate. For years our extended family skiied in Colorado together--the kids with their helmets, the adults bare headed. That was, until my brother-in-law Dennis was found on the slopes unconscious with spinal fluid coming out of his ears. He's a pretty good skiier, but it was his last run of the day on a blue slope and he lost control and skiied into a tree. You can bet all of us protect our heads now.
Fortunately, after being airlifted from Telluride, Dennis recovered. But that's not necessarily the end of the story. I'm currently reporting a story on brain aging and apparently, any trauma to the head---even if you don't totally lose consciousness like Dennis did--can injure the brain and increase your risk of developing Alzheimers or dementia later in life. Do any of us want that? I think not. So go ahead and give up the idea that helmets ruin your look or make you seem like a rookie. I know I personally look like Kazoo on the slopes. And I admit that I used to resent moms who biked around with their hair flowing while I pedalled along with my hardhat. But I'm so over that. Not just because I want to be a role model for my kids. But because I want to be around long enough to take on those double blacks with them.