In Safe Hands: The Snowbird Medical Clinic

By Local Lexi Mar 16, 2022
Eventually, we all fall down. Should you take a tumble at Snowbird, ski patrol will quickly whisk you away to the world-class University of Utah Health Clinic.
In Safe Hands: The Snowbird Medical Clinic

Deep in the inner sanctum of the Snowbird Center at Snowbird lies a little corner of the world that once served as my daycare. Others might recognize it as the University of Utah Health Snowbird Medical Clinic, a welcome sight and a place of great relief for injured skiers and snowboarders. 

My ski bum dad served for 24 years in the Snowbird Medical Clinic as one of their emergency medicine doctors and my mom put in five seasons as an emergency medicine nurse. When little, my dad would tote my sister and I to work and then turn us loose on the mountain. We’d rest in the Medical Clinic during the day and tootle around in the break room begging for snacks. Even when we were youngsters, we always understood how lucky Snowbird was to have such a wonderful facility and talented medical staff. That was 30 years ago, but Snowbird’s commitment to the guest experience continues to this day alongside University of Utah Health

It’s never fun but it is mostly inevitable that at some point in a skier or snowboarder’s life, they will face a sport-related accident or injury. 

Thanks to an all-star ski patrol and the Snowbird Medical Clinic, anyone who winds up in trouble at Snowbird will receive prompt and attentive care. From dehydration and altitude sickness to broken bones or chest pain, the clinic is ready to serve any Snowbird guest in discomfort. 

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One of the long-time emergency medicine doctors at the Snowbird Clinic is a certified badass and hero of mine, Dr. Ellen Guthrie. Dr. Ellen also serves as the resort’s Medical Director for Snowbird Ski Patrol and has worked at the Snowbird Clinic for 30 years. She would often keep tabs on me as a child when I hung out in the clinic and if I were ever to become injured or have an accident, I cannot imagine anyone I’d rather see than Dr. Ellen or one of her colleagues. The Snowbird Clinic staff has a healthy mix of emergency medicine and sports medicine focus and there is always an experienced physician ready and waiting for you, including my longtime family friends Ted Paisley, MD and Tricia Petzold, MD. 

Dr. Ellen isn't always confined indoors because she devotes some shifts to the clinic and others on skis alongside the Snowbird Ski Patrol as a member of Snowbird's unique Doctor Patrol program. “We don’t enjoy seeing Snowbird’s guests hurting or having a bad experience, but we pride ourselves on having one of the best ski patrols on planet earth,” Ellen says. Whether sprawled on snow or reclining on a stretcher, if I saw Dr. Ellen or one of her coworkers on the scene, I would immediately feel safe and secure. 

Dr. Ellen cultivates a unique perspective in that she understands the challenges ski patrollers encounter in retrieving patients off the hill and transporting them to the clinic and the fear and discomfort faced by patients until they arrive at the clinic for treatment.

According to Dr. Ellen, there is always a mix of emergency medicine physicians, orthopedic surgeons and trauma surgeons at the mountain each day in conjunction with the University of Utah’s sports medicine-based staff in the Snowbird Clinic. Because it is an educational institution, University of Utah Health also fosters medical residents or sports medicine fellows for valuable training in the field. There will often be 2-3 doctors in the clinic and one doctor on the mountain with ski patrol. This seamless care team provides incredible service and definitive care wherever trauma is to be found at Snowbird. Dr. Ellen has mostly seen it all at Snowbird in her 30 years of service and the guests of Snowbird are lucky to have such expertise readily on hand. 

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Polly Dacus, B.S.N., R.N. and C.E.N., served for 13 years in the University of Utah ER Department, toiled 10 years in the Alta Clinic just up the road from Snowbird and now serves as the Nurse Manager for the University of Utah Health Snowbird Clinic. A long-time Little Cottonwood skier, Polly gushes about her job at Snowbird and takes great pride in her staff and their ability to handle anything that comes through the clinic’s door. 

Polly is most excited about the addition of an athletic trainer to the Snowbird Clinic staff this season. It’s a great added value for patients as the trainer can educate guests about their injury and start them on day one "pre-hab" right in the clinic. Also on Polly’s staff is an X-ray technician who can immediately complete x-rays for a patient which are then interpreted by the Radiology and Orthopedics Teams at the University of Utah. For local patients, Polly has her clinic staff arrange follow up visits, schedule surgery and provide referrals among the University’s huge network of providers and services. 

Thanks to University of Utah Health’s commitment to education, Ellen and Polly work hard together to organize learning opportunities for the members of Snowbird Ski Patrol and the clinic staff. For example, the two recently brought paramedics from Fire Station 113 in Little Cottonwood Canyon to work on advanced cardiac drills with both the patrol and clinic staff. The three teams in Little Cottonwood Canyon often interface and as a result, their rapport ensures all medical personnel are poised for action and prepared to work together during the worst-case scenarios. 

Though the facility is staffed with amazing individuals and equipment for nearly every type of emergency, Ellen and Polly hope they don't see you in the clinic! The two had some great tips to share on injury prevention while skiing and snowboarding. Their combined wisdom in treating acute mountain maladies is the best advice for staying safe and healthy on your next trip to the mountain. If you ever run into trouble, the University of Utah Health Snowbird Clinic is ready for you! 


  • Dr. Ellen confides that severe injuries typically happen near the end of the day when people are tired. “Leave something on the plate,” Dr. Ellen advises. “After lunch, do a few runs and then quit while you still have gas in the tank to ski another day. The worst injuries happen at the end of the day. If you think you should do one more run, don’t. Go grab a beer at General Grits and enjoy the Snowbird plaza.”

  • Polly’s first tip is “Wear a helmet!’ A helmet should be the first piece of ski equipment you invest in. Helmets save lives! 

  • Polly also suggests investing in a ski or snowboard lesson or two. Learning fundamental techniques and good form will help promote efficiency and prevent fatigue while teaching the valuable art of falling. 

  • Both ladies say “HYDRATE! HYDRATE! HYDRATE!” A good number of the patients they see in the Snowbird Medical Clinic are suffering through symptoms of altitude sickness. This is especially the case for folks visiting from sea level. Drinking lots of water, getting rest and avoiding alcohol will mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness. 

  • Take breaks frequently. A lot of the visitors to ski areas haven’t been skiing frequently and their bodies aren’t accustomed to the sudden strain of high altitude and 3,000-foot vertical laps. Be gentle with yourself and take frequent breaks to sip water, rest and recharge.

  • Be aware that a higher percentage of injuries occur on powder days or days with poor visibility. Flat light conditions make navigation far more difficult and skiers or snowboarders are more prone to crashing, especially when the wind kicks up or the snow is falling. Be conscious of these statistics and navigate tough visibility areas slowly and carefully. Head for the trees if you can where visibility often improves. Don't be afraid to just call it and live to ski another day injury free! 

Content sponsored by University of Utah Health


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