By Nancy McCann
Editor’s note: Welcome to our new blog series, “Off Campus.” Here you’ll discover what our amazing Research Institute employees do for fun, recreation, and the good of their communities once they leave the city behind. And if you know someone in your department or lab with a fascinating hobby or interest, we’d like to hear about it!
As director of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Clinical Vector Core, Johannes (Han) van der Loo, PhD, a leading expert in clinical viral vector production, spends his work hours in the state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the Raymond G. Perelman Center for Cellular and Molecular Therapeutics. Under his direction, the Core helps to realize the enormous promise of gene transfer therapy to address unmet medical needs.
But on winter Sunday evenings, Dr. van der Loo trades his lab coat for his cherry red ski jacket and goggles, his train commute for a chairlift, and his office view for one of mountains and snow-covered trees. Dr. van der Loo is an alpine patroller and 10-year member of the National Ski Patrol, a nonprofit association and leading authority of on-mountain safety. Their certification in outdoor emergency care is similar to emergency medical technician (EMT) training but with a focus on outdoor activities. He volunteers, with his wife, Mary, at a mountain resort in Macungie, Pennsylvania.
When their shift begins midafternoon, they join five to six fellow patrollers, all armed with radios to communicate with each other, and circulate the mountain on skis. They’re tasked with making sure any solid objects (lift towers, snow guns) near the runs have proper soft padding so that when skiers lose control, they hit the padding and not the structures.
“Any dangers, including unsafe terrain, need to be adequately flagged and/or closed off,” Dr. van der Loo said.
Yard Sale, Jams and Pretzels
The ski patrol also monitors the changing weather and snow conditions to make sure the hill continues to be safe for the skiing public. And since this particular resort is local, guaranteeing an abundance of novice skiers, there’s a lot of “picking up.”
“If somebody falls and loses all of their skis and poles — what patrollers call ‘yard sale’ — and everything starts sliding down the hill, we generally help with picking it all back up and getting people back on their skis,” Dr. van der Loo said.
And, most importantly, if there’s an injury on the mountain, these EMTs-on-skis come to the rescue.
“The main assessment is to verify if the injury is immediately life-threatening, or not,” Dr. van der Loo said. “Each of us is equipped for quick intervention, including bandages for stopping bleeding and performing CPR. We may request additional equipment by radio like a sled for transporting the guest down the slope, which comes equipped with large splints and blankets for broken legs, as well as backboard and neck collar for stabilization, or specialized equipment such as an automatic external defibrillator (AED), oxygen, and suction.
“A situation where there’s arms and legs everywhere, or where guests are wrapped around a tree or object — ‘jams and pretzels’ — requires a particular order in how to realign the person after they’re untangled that minimizes further injury.”
By volunteering as a National Ski patroller during different shifts throughout the years, Dr. van der Loo has noticed a pattern in the timing of ski injuries: The day starts out quiet, but once people start getting tired and hungry around 11:30 a.m., the first injuries begin to show up, peaking between lunch and 2 p.m. Then it’s quiet again until — the sun goes down and the temperature changes.
“Once the sun starts going down, the snow changes character,” he explained. “The runs become faster. Moguls (bumps) that previously were soft, harden. People can get caught unaware.”
When you’re hungry or getting tired, the best thing to do is take a ski break before you get yourself into trouble, Dr. van der Loo cautioned. At the end of the night, the ski patrollers “sweep the hill.” They’re the last ones to ride the lift, ensuring nobody goes up behind them. Each patroller takes a run, going down the mountain in parallel, making sure there isn’t anyone still on the ski slope, “crashed” in the woods, or any ski equipment is left behind.
Certification and Commitment
Becoming a member of the National Ski Patrol takes commitment and plenty of training. For a candidate, classes for outdoor emergency care take place prior to the ski season starting in August, are a minimum of three nights a week, with hands-on training in patient assessment. Once the snow begins to fall, ski training and sled or toboggan training begins, which usually lasts the entire ski season. In addition, patrollers attend several days of retraining each year, including emergency care, on-the-hill ski lift evacuation, and CPR and AED re-certification.
“The techniques being taught are very specific to safe skiing, and to be able to bring down, from the steepest area of a hill, a sled with a 200-pound person on it,” Dr. van der Loo said. “You are tested under the worst possible conditions to see if you can manage and control the sled and stay within a narrow corridor of about 20 feet wide. The requirement is to be able to go almost straight down under full control, at a safe and constant speed. During the test, you can’t stop or slow down. It needs to be one continuous movement down the hill, on challenging terrain, including ice, and with somebody behind you on a toboggan. Maneuvering the skis correctly to accomplish this is highly technical, which I do enjoy.”
For the Love of Skiing
Being active and outdoors during the cold, gray months of winter are just two of many reasons why Dr. van de Loo enjoys skiing.
“It’s a nice counter balance to work,” he said. “When you’re on skis, the only thing that matters is the few feet ahead of you. You need to be in the present. It is also nice to be able to do it together as a couple.”
As for ski patrol, itself, it’s a useful skillset to have on — and off — the slopes. “At one of my son’s cross country events, I had to use a magazine and a T-shirt to splint and stabilize a kid’s broken arm after he fell and got trampled at the start of the race.” On other occasions, Dr. van der Loo had to use the Heimlich maneuver on a choking colleague at a lab lunch, and he helped a teenager who dislocated his hip during an ultimate Frisbee game.
“It’s good to know what you can do to help, without making it worse, and being able to recognize when a situation is life-threatening,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to be able to help.”
The camaraderie and diversity of his fellow patrollers is also meaningful.
“I like that there are people from all walks of life, all levels of education, all types of backgrounds, and all types of characters,” Dr. van der Loo said.
And from the self-described non-risk-taker: “It is sometimes really fun to scream down the hill at high speed,” Dr. van der Loo said with a big smile.
Advice From an Expert
What is the best thing to do if you misjudge the difficulty of the slope and get yourself into an area where you shouldn’t be?
“My advice? Just sit down and ask somebody to notify ski patrol. We’ll give you a ride down the hill. It’s free,” he enthused. “There’s no bill associated with the service. It’s better to walk down or ask for help, then to try to ski and get hurt.
“And never, never say, ‘Let’s take one last run.’ We try to avoid a phrase like that.”