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Big Sky emergency medicine, a brief history

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By Dr. Jeff Daniels EBS Medical Columnist

The Medical Clinic of Big Sky opened in the summer of 1994, and prior to that there wasn’t much in the way of medical care without having to drive to Bozeman.

There were private ambulances out of Bozeman, including Hall’s Ambulance Service, circulating around the Big Sky Resort Mountain Village waiting for a serious ski injury to bring to town. Patients were transported to the base area by ski patrol to a space beneath the Gondola No. 1 loading bay, where the pay parking lot is located now.

Fran Balice, a retired family physician who still lives in Big Sky, provided emergency care to guests of the resort and injured skiers – there were very few snowboarders at the time. Balice would ski around and be on call for emergencies; there were no cell phones, and he wasn’t given a walkie-talkie. Messages were left for him on the small bulletin boards at the bottom of every chairlift. Without an x-ray machine, it was hard to provide the best level of care, but Balice was a great asset to the resort until we opened the clinic.

Big Sky had one small ambulance at the time, not several state-of-the-art vehicles with heavy chassis like we have now. The Big Sky Resort Area District had just started, but it would take a few years to build up the services that we have today. Bob Stober was a retired paramedic hired by the Big Sky Owners Association the year before I arrived, and he took over the all-volunteer fire department and ambulance service. I joined the department for the first few years I lived in Big Sky and training was held once a week, or on the job.

You’ve probably seen the Summit Air helicopter landing in the Meadow Village or up on the mountain – it came to Big Sky many times this past winter. In the 1990s it was very rare to get a helicopter to make an emergency evacuation to Bozeman, Billings or even Idaho Falls. The closest helicopter, as the crow flies, was actually in Idaho Falls, but winter weather conditions often prevented the flight from reaching Big Sky.

A helicopter from Billings could be called, but it had to refuel before arriving in Big Sky, so it took about the same amount of time as an ambulance transport to Bozeman. Summit Air, located at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Belgrade, has made a tremendous difference in saving lives and improving patient outcomes.

Things have certainly changed over the years, as the community has grown. We now have an emergency room at the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center, and many well-trained health providers in Big Sky.

An example of this level of care came into play the final weekend of the ski season, just before the pond skim. A cardiac arrest occurred near our clinic, and we had the help of Big Sky Resort Ski Patrol, Big Sky Fire Department paramedics, and several emergency doctors working with me through the student/resident program I started in 1998. From the clinic, the patient was transported to the medical center emergency room in Meadow Village, and then Summit Air flew the patient to Bozeman.

Dr. Jeff Daniels has been practicing medicine in Big Sky since 1994, when he and his family moved here from New York City. A unique program he implements has attracted more than 700 medical students and young doctors to train with the Medical Clinic of Big Sky.

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