Ice and snow combo makes this winter especially injurious

Last modified: Wednesday, March 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Dr. R.F. Conway the chief of emergency medicine for Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton has some advice for those venturing out on the icy streets and sidewalks these frigid days: get yourself a pair of Yaktrax.

Yes, he knows that sound like an ad for the company that makes the ice grippers that fit over shoes or boots. In fact, he jokes that he’s told so many people about them recently that maybe he’s entitled to a cut of the profits. But with the large numbers of people slipping and falling these past few weeks he’s become a zealot.

“I sent a lot of people out to buy them last weekend,” he said in a telephone interview from the hospital Thursday. “You spend 25 bucks and you save yourself a $400 emergency room visit or a $4,000 hip replacement.”

Kay Moran, 71, of Amherst wishes she had had her ice grippers on when she fell on the sidewalk on South Pleasant Street Feb. 9, shattering one wrist and cracking the other.

“I didn’t have them on that day because most of the sidewalks were pretty clear, but I found the spot that wasn’t,” she said. Moran, who had been out for her daily walk, is recovering from surgery on her right arm, which is in a cast. She’s wearing a splint on her left arm.

Conway, who spent 15 hours shifts in the emergency room last weekend, said with snowstorms followed by cold temperatures, followed by snow dustings that camouflage icy patches, the numbers of people getting hurt has risen sharply over the past few months. He doesn’t have numbers to compare with last year, but this winter seems worse. And not just for elderly people. “Nobody’s immune,” he said. “We’ve seen a wide range of ages.”

Following winter storms, emergency room business grows 10 to 15 percent over the 100 patients doctors there generally see, he said.

“I’m still recovering,” he said of last Saturday when patients started arriving at 6 a.m. with bruises, strains, breaks and concussions.

Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said the ambulance service which runs out of the Amherst Fire Department has also been busy with ice and snow-related injuries. “We’ve seen a big spike over the same time last year,” he said. He, too, didn’t have specific numbers available because of the way calls are categorized, but said he has noticed the difference when scanning the records.

Multiple snowfalls and unrelenting cold has kept the ground dangerous this winter, he said.

“People are hurting their arms, legs, wrists, ankles, you name it. And it’s all ages from teens to people in their 80s.”

Loretta Kane of Northampton is 48 and steady on her feet. But on Wednesday, she encountered an icy patch while walking her dog in her front yard on Bridge Road and now has her arm in a sling. “I saw the ice,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. “And I said to myself, ‘be careful.’ Then I was on the ground.”

Intense pain in her arm landed her in her doctor’s office. “I knew it was bad,” she said.

No broken bones were discovered in two initials X-rays, but she’s been instructed to keep her arm immobilized for a week until an orthopedist can examine it once the swelling goes down. Kane, who runs a one-woman hair salon next to her home, had to cancel all her appointments indefinitely.

“It’s terrible,” she said. “I can’t work. “I’m just hoping it isn’t fractured and it will just be a couple of weeks.”

Moran, who had surgery on her right arm and can’t lift anything heavy with her left, knows she is in for a long haul. She broke her leg and wrist after a slip on the ice 10 years ago and wore casts for eight weeks following by a lengthy stretch of physical therapy. “So, I’m anticipating that,” she said. A member of Amherst’s Finance Committee and chair of the town’s Joint Capital Planning Committee, Moran is still trying to keep up with her commitments. Being right-handed, she has had to work at signing documents with her left hand. “I can just barely do it,” she said.

Moran said she has five acquaintances who have also been injured in falls — many in their own driveways — in recent weeks. Two suffered concussions, one broke a wrist, another broke a leg and the fifth broke her shoulder and a rib.

“And several of them are younger than me,” she said.

Conway said most of the injuries doctors see in the emergency room are severe bruises and sprains and strains of the arms and back, the next category is broken bones. The most severe, concussions, are the least common, though the ER doctors are treating those, too.

“Unfortunately, older people are the ones more likely to be fracturing something,” he said. “The young can take a beating.”

If you don’t have ice grippers for your feet, Conway suggests you ditch the idea of talking a walk outdoors until conditions improve.

He pointed out that there are canes and walking sticks available with sharp points that grip the ice, which can be helpful. He advises that people look in on elderly relatives and friends to make sure their walkways and driveways are sanded. With another period of severe cold predicted, he said, it is good to keep in mind usual precautions, which include staying hydrated and making sure heating sources are safe. And, he said, beware of carbon monoxide hazards. If stuck in a car somewhere, open a window.

“The big one,” though “is checking on the elderly,” he said. “Make sure they’re safe and comfortable.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.