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Curtes: Honoring the Vail ski patrollers who saved my life

This story and photo first appeared in the Vail Daily on January 16, 2020.

On Jan. 14, 2000, my heart stopped at the top of Blue Sky Basin at Belle’s Camp. On January 14, 2020, I came back to remember the day with people who were part of a “team” that literally saved my life.

I have come back almost every year to ski with friends and local “guardian angels” Kevin Latchford (a 37-year veteran of Vail Ski Patrol) and Mark Patterson (retired patroller) who were with me on the day my heart stopped. I am alive because of how the patrollers that day responded in an emergency.

It was about one week after Blue Sky opened on Jan. 8 and after the burning of Two Elk Lodge a year or two earlier that the patrollers were put to a test on dealing with a sudden cardiac arrest in a remote area.

At Blue Sky, Kevin was called over by a friend and talked to me about what was going on when suddenly the classic heart attack symptoms occurred.  They used the FR2 defibrillator on me and brought back a heart rhythm as the helicopter was landing. Flight for Life nurse Karen Steur intubated me along with Jeff Jones, a paramedic, who just happened to be in the area on his day off.

Pilot Rod Ballack, a Vietnam veteran, then flew me to the emergency room at Vail Health Hospital where Dr. Larry Gaul attempted a TPA clot-busting drug that did not work. He then used a balloon pump which kept me alive until the helicopter to Denver delivered me to Saint Joseph Hospital.

An angiojet then removed the blood clot in my left anterior descending artery and a stent was installed. On Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000, I flew home to Wisconsin.

I continue to come back to Vail to say thank you and have done so for 18 of the 20 years with which I have been blessed. I planned for my 20th reunion for a year as I wanted it to be even more special. First I flew my entire family of 13 people to Colorado the weekend before Jan. 14 so they could feel some of the joy I have experienced in Vail and to introduce my seven grandchildren to special people who were part of their grandfather’s save. My three daughters and their husbands were also able to meet Kevin and Mark, who they have grown to know over the years.

After the family flew home, I was able to focus on Tuesday, Jan. 14. I had discussed my plan with Kevin and the head of the patrol, Brice May, weeks before my arrival. I brought five food packages of Wisconsin cheese and sausage along with local breads in bags donated by my daughter from her start-up business back home.

These were to be brought to the five major outposts on the mountain so patrollers could share these gifts. I delivered the foods to the patrol at their 6:30 a.m. meeting where I was asked to tell my “save” story. The 35-40 patrollers were superb listeners and fully understood how important their roles are. They are often unsung heroes who do not get enough credit. I wanted them to know how much they mean to me and how many ways they have impacted my life.

The next step was to ski back up to Blue Sky for what had become my annual tradition of being with family, friends, Kevin and Mark at the place where I had been “reborn.” This year was another spectacular blue sky day.  Close to 10 of us crowded into the patrol hut to break bread and share a meal before heading out to the landing zone where my heart stopped. We said a little prayer of thanks before heading down the mountain, another annual tradition.

I then take the group to a dinner celebration. This year, 16 of us went to The Gashouse in Edwards to honor Kevin, Mark and Peter Werlin of Flight for Life in Frisco. The emotion and positive feelings about all that had happened 20 years ago and our dinner were a huge success for everyone … especially me.

Why do I continue to come back?  The most compelling reason is to give credit to those who deserve it but don’t always hear it. I want to say “thank you” to all those who serve the Vail community and I want the younger patrollers to hear how impactful they could be in a similar situation. I also wanted my family to better understand my love for the people I have grown to know through my ordeal. An unexpected side benefit has been connecting a variety of friends from various segments of my life.

People who didn’t know one another have now become close friends. It truly warms my heart and helps to answer the question I have often asked myself: Why was I saved? Why was I so lucky? Why did everything work to perfection that day? Why did Kevin insist on the helicopter? Why did Vail Resorts insist on covering the mountain with these new defibrillators? Why was the weather perfect for a landing at altitude? Why was the Vail Ski Patrol so well-schooled in handling a sudden cardiac arrest?

I aggressively tell my story to anyone who will listen trying to educate them about Vail’s professional patrollers. I have told my story to individuals on the ski lift, the people at the ski rental shop, ticket takers, and waitresses. And now I’m sharing it here with all of you who read the Vail Daily.

Lee Curtes is a Wisconsin resident and a longtime visitor to Vail.

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