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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Vestal: How a fun day can go downhill

Kaleb Rowatt, 9, enjoys sledding in the rain at Mission Park on Thursday.  (J. BART RAYNIAK)
Kaleb Rowatt, 9, enjoys sledding in the rain at Mission Park on Thursday. (J. BART RAYNIAK)

After a long hiatus, I have returned to sledding.

And I must say, I recommend it. It’s great fun. Go with a 3-year-old if you can.

But while you’re out there, you might notice a few things. Sometimes the walking-uphill part of the enterprise and the zooming-downhill part intersect. Sometimes kids – especially little ones and the bigger ones in daredevil mode – find themselves unable to control the sled. Sometimes the dang thing doesn’t go where you point it. And sometimes a child will not pay any mind to an approaching sled.

Not to kill your buzz. But not too long ago I was at Manito and as the sledders zoomed in and out among the walkers, I remembered one of Spokane’s most sobering stories about wintertime fun.

It’s been 11 New Year’s Days since Tom Higgins, a father of three, broke his neck after saving a boy from the path of a speeding sled at Holmberg Park. Heroic and heartbreaking, Higgins’ story seized the town’s attention and sympathy.

These days, Higgins would prefer to keep to himself. But we ought to remember him – and the astonishing speed with which a life can be wrenched in a new direction – when we head out with the sled.

The vast majority of us do so without injury or incident, of course. Sledding injuries are rare, local hospital officials say, and other wintertime activities are a more frequent cause of emergency room visits.

“I think the (larger problem) in wintertime is falling and slipping on the ice, and many times it’s in people who are tremendously healthful,” said Dr. Eric Chun, an emergency room doc at Kootenai Medical Center in Coeur d’Alene.

Still, some 20,000 kids a year wind up in the nation’s ERs with sledding injuries, according to a 10-year study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy. Most injuries occur in the run-outs at the bottom of sledding hills, to children 14 and younger. Half involved collisions of some kind, and these were most likely to involve a brain injury.

There is a way to provide some protection for the brain – a way that kids use, to some degree, on bikes and skateboards, snowboards and skis: Helmets.

Doctors and health professionals recommend them for sledding too, but if you take a look around at Manito or Mission or Holmberg, it’s clear that the idea has not exactly taken hold.

It’s the kind of thing a lot of us resist, on the grounds of back-in-the- day-we-sledded-without-helmets- and-ate-broken-glass-while-riding- unsecured-in-the-beds-of-pickups- and-we-turned-out-fine.

“I grew up in the ’60s,” said Pam Sheldon, the nurse manager of the pediatric emergency room at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center and an avowed proponent of helmets on sledders. “We didn’t wear helmets for anything. We didn’t wear seat belts.”

Sheldon notes that helmets were once unthinkable on ski slopes, as well, and now they’re everywhere. A skier herself, she sees the best arguments in favor of helmets with some frequency in the emergency room.

“I wear a helmet (skiing), but I didn’t for a long time,” she said. “Then I started seeing what adults look like when they hit a tree.”

A helmet is no guarantee against injury, of course, and there’s a lot to be said for good old alertness, caution and keeping an eye on the kiddos. Using a sled that can be steered. Avoiding head-first sledding. Staying off roads – and, it should go without saying, ignoring the impulse to pull your kids’ sled around with an ATV. Because no matter how rugged and old-school and helmet-free you think you are, things happen.

Which brings me back to Higgins. If you remember, he saw a 7-year-old about to be struck by a teenager on a super-fast tube sled, back on Jan. 1, 2000. He scooped the youngster out of the way. Both were hit. The boy was OK. Higgins broke his neck and was paralyzed.

He still lives in Spokane, and we’ve spoken a few times in recent months. He decided that he was uncomfortable doing an interview about his life since those days – when he was on TV and in the paper with some frequency. He later sued the sled manufacturer and others involved in the accident, and won a multimillion-dollar judgment.

The attention those events brought him was sometimes uncomfortable, he says – even positive, well-intentioned scrutiny can be hard to adjust to. I understand not wanting to let yourself in for that again.

But it’s impossible not to think about that moment on the sledding hill 11 years ago. The before and after of one second. The ruthless speed of it.

“If you’re on a sledding hill, you need to use the same awareness you would use in traffic,” Higgins said. “If you have a child with you, you need to act like you’re standing on the side of a busy street.”

If you’re typical, you will sled all you want for your whole life and be fine. Almost certainly, you won’t have to do what Tom Higgins chose to do, or pay the price he paid.

But as Sheldon says: “That potential is always there.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@

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