When Michelle Donaldson packed her bags and left Montana for a World Cup snowboard race in Andorra last month, she wasn’t competing for gold.
The Havre-based orthopedic surgeon was looking out for the health and safety of the American competitors. Dr. Donaldson is a physician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Team.
Donaldson got her start working with the team while she was doing a fellowship at a sports medicine clinic in Vail, Colo.
“Those of us that were interested got the opportunity to work with the team,” she said.
After Donaldson finished the fellowship, she remained a member of the U.S. Ski Team Doctors Pool, a group of about 120 physicians that travels with the ski and snowboard teams and provides medical assistance. The goal of the physician pool is for athletes to have access to American doctors no matter where in the world they’re competing and to provide immediate emergency assessments.
“We stay with the athletes from the moment they get hurt throughout the entire medical process,” Donaldson said. “My main role is to triage the skiers and act as their representative and advocate.”
Donaldson’s first trip with the ski team was in 2001 to Japan. She travels with the team once or twice a year, covering events ranging from giant slalom to ski jumping at competitions and training camps. She has taken about 18 trips to locations such as New Zealand and Chile.
The World Cup event in Andorra was a prelude to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games set for Friday through Feb. 23 in Sochi, Russia.
Snowboardcross is a freestyle snowboarding event where snowboarders race four abreast down multiple terrain features and jumps. The sport was included for the first time in the Olympics at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
As the team physician, Donaldson will arrive in Andorra a few days before the competition. She was on hand while the team practiced and also became familiar with the race course.
“You have to really know the course,” she said. “You have to understand where the danger spots are.”
Donaldson scouts out the best routes to get an injured athlete off the mountain, finds the nearest hospital and the nearest level-1 trauma center.
“That’s not something you want to have to make up when you’re placed in a situation when someone’s life is in your hands,” she said.
As a ski team physician, Donaldson goes through an on-snow emergency course every four years in which she practices on the ski slopes advanced life-saving techniques that are usually done inside an emergency room.
Donaldson mainly treats sprains, broken bones or over-use injuries when traveling with the team, although she also sees everything from rashes to the flu and other aliments she doesn’t usually see as an orthopedic surgeon.
“You have to treat things that you don’t normally treat,” she said.
When she’s covering a team event, Donaldson spends seven to 10 days with the team, eating with them, going to their practices and getting to know them.
“It’s fun to see how dedicated they are to their sport,” Donaldson said. “Most of them are quite down to earth.”
Most people have heard of only a few members of the ski or snowboard team, such as Shaun White or Lindsey Vonn.
“The vast majority of the team doesn’t get that kind of notoriety,” Donaldson said. “They haven’t had glimpses of that fame. They’re just regular people trying to continue to pursue their sport.”
Donaldson gets to know the teams she with travels fairly well, but as the only female in the physician pool even athletes she doesn’t work with often remember her.
Donaldson is surprised there aren’t more women working with the ski team, but less than 5 percent of orthopedic surgeons nationwide are women, and the responsibilities of children and family can make it harder for women to get away for the time required.
“My husband and I don’t have children,” Donaldson said. “My husband is an avid skier so he totally gets it.”
Covering the pre-Olympics event required Donaldson to be away for about a week. Covering the Olympics is a six-week commitment.
Donaldson served as the physician for the parallel giant slalom team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which was a fun experience.
“I aspire to do it again,” she said.
Even though she’s not going to the Olympics this year, other races are more fun during Olympic years, she said, noting that the athletes are at another level and the atmosphere is more intense.
As a skier herself, one of the treats of working with the U.S. Ski Team is traveling to some amazing ski areas.
“You often get access to parts of the mountain that are blocked off,” she said.
Now 45, Donaldson took up skiing when she was 21.
“My brother taught me. He was trying to kill me, I think,” she joked.
When she was 36, Donaldson started ski racing.
“I just love it,” although she admits she’s nowhere near as fast as her Olympic patients.
But ski skills are necessary to work as a team doctor.
“You have to be a good skier to even get down some of the hills they compete on,” she said.
And that’s not a problem.
“I’m pretty fast for an old chick,” she said.