Airlifting more than 40 people off Canterbury skifields this year has helped contribute to the region’s $1.6 million ACC bill for snow-related claims.
The estimated $350,000 cost for the Canterbury Westpac rescue helicopter to airlift 30 skiers and 11 snowboarders averages out at $8600 a mission, with more than a month to go this year.
For Christchurch skier Oliver Sullivan, it is money well spent.
The 20-year-old was left screaming as he lay paralysed from the waist down on the slopes of Craigieburn skifield on July 11.
Sullivan set off on his first run of the day before hitting an icy patch, sending him tumbling 20 metres down the mountain.
“Straight away, I had no feeling or movement in my legs. I was quite worried, I was swearing and screaming out for help.”
The “freak accident” left the intermediate skier with spinal cord damage and needing an operation to repair fractured vertebrae near the mid-section of his spine.
Doctors told him he may never walk again but seven weeks on he is walking with crutches as he rehabilitates in the Burwood Spinal Unit. The hospital will be his home for three months but it could take another 18 months before he walks properly again.
Sullivan is among 660 Cantabrians to July 31 who have claims with ACC for ski and snowboard-related accidents.
The ACC bill for Canterbury residents this year has exceeded $1.6m, although the claim cost is counted against the year it is paid and could include ongoing claims from previous years.
Nationally, 4937 New Zealanders have been injured in skifield accidents in 2015. Claims this year have cost the taxpayer $9.6 million – on target to reach last year’s figure of $20.5m
According to ACC, the most common injuries are soft tissue injuries, fractures and head knocks.
Burwood Spinal Unit clinical director Raj Singhal believed a new strategy for spinal patients was helping people like Sullivan avoid the long term consequences from skifield accidents.
The new initiative, approved in June, means any accident involving an isolated spinal injury requires the patient to be airlifted to Christchurch Hospital or Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital, where experts can assess them quickly and improve their chances of recovery.
“For example, if there was an injury on a skifield in Queenstown, they would have first gone to Invercargill or Dunedin, where they would have had a CT or MRI scan and they’ve wasted 24 hours before they know. And then 48 hours later, they come to us and that window where you can make a difference is gone.”
Singhal said the spinal unit had treated seven skifield-related spinal injuries this year, two of which had serious spinal cord damage.
Many injuries were down to bad luck or people attempting to trails or jumps beyond their ability but skifields were working to reduce injuries, he said.
Canterbury’s Mt Hutt Ski Area’s accident rate this year has dropped below the national average of up to five accident per 1000 visitors this year, compared with previous years when it rated worse.
This year’s serious accidents included a man who fractured his lower leg in a sledding accident and a skier who cut his ear while attempting a jump.
Manager James McKenzie attributed a drop in injuries this year to accident prevention interventions.
Safety improvements included large catch fences, better unloading zones for ski lifts and better communication with school groups to ensure pupils were skiing within their capabilities.
“About 90 per cent of skiers are wearing helmets now,” McKenzie said.
BY THE NUMBERS
– Skifield accidents cost $20.4m in ACC claims in 2014, and $9.6m in 2015.
– 13,505 accidents in 2014, and 4937 in 2015.
– 10,469 soft tissue injuries 2014.
– 1684 fracture dislocation.
– 493 concussion/brain injury.
– 1991 Queenstown residents injured so far in 2015. The highest of any region.
– 660 Canterbury residents injured.
– Canterbury Westpac rescue helicopter has airlifted 41 patients in 2015, at an average cost of $8625.