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Two decades of medical education in Big Sky

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By Dr. Jeff Daniels EBS Medical Columnist

The ski season is quickly approaching and this will be my 23rd Thanksgiving working on the first injuries of the winter at Big Sky Resort. When I first started back on Thanksgiving Day in 1994, with an office under the gondola by the Mountain Mall—the Summit Hotel now inhabits that space—I quickly became my first ski accident.

All was quiet that morning, and I was going to start my career here skiing every day, so I went up to the ticket booth and I remember John Kircher handing me my pass. My second run down Ambush turned that idea around when I fell, tumbled, and learned the hard way that landing on an outstretched hand was not very good for the wrist.

I sustained a Colles fracture, and after that first season was over I had to have surgery to fix my wrist. I’ve treated about 1,000 Colles fractures since then, and I’ve been lucky enough not to injure my wrists again.

This experience taught me that skiing is a sport very conducive to injuries, and based on the thousands of people skiing on a given mountain at any one time, accounts for more injuries than would occur on a football field or basketball court on a given day.

During a busy day in the middle of the ski season at the Medical Clinic of Big Sky, we might see 10 to 20 injuries. After a few years, I realized that this would be an amazing teaching and learning experience for me, having come from a teaching hospital in New York City, as well as for any student who could join our clinic for an elective month.

I decided to take that plunge when our current office on the mountain was built in the summer of 1998. With five exam rooms and an X-ray room to stage trauma, we could set up a “mini” teaching hospital that would be great for patients as well as for students.

In the summer of 1998, as I watched our office being built, I went on AOL and was able to get a list of websites of all the medical schools in the U.S. Each website was different, but I was able to find a connection to students who would be choosing what electives to do in their senior year of medical school.

I lined up 12 students to fill in the time between Thanksgiving and mid April, which meant two students at any time. I was able to arrange for ski passes, and even a very hospitable homeowner—one of her sons was in this group of 12, and another had worked with me at the clinic two years prior—to offer housing to the entire group of 12. She lasted through the first eight students, and then justifiably gave up playing housemother.

That first year worked out well, and word of this elective offered at Big Sky began to spread. I now receive about 200 requests to come and do this program in all months of the year, not only from medical students, but also from young doctors doing their residencies, and specialists in training for sports medicine. I’ve hosted American students and residents, as well as students and young doctors from Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Germany.

I can now staff my clinic at any given time with one or more very experienced emergency doctors, all about to finish their training and go out into practice in a couple of months. I’ve even had orthopedic residents coming through on a routine basis.

This year, we will pass 800 students, residents and fellows learning in Big Sky, and should make it to 1000 in a couple of more years.

Dr. Jeff Daniels was the recipient of the 2016 Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Chet Huntley Lifetime Achievement Award and 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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