Emergency departments at Billings hospitals were busy last month as people slipped and hit their heads during the second-snowiest December in nearly 80 years.
The number of people seeking treatment for “falls on ice” at Billings Clinic’s emergency department nearly doubled during December, compared with the same period last year. The Clinic recorded 99 ice-related falls in December 2013 compared with 54 in December 2012.
Dr. Randy Thompson, an emergency physician at Billings Clinic, said it’s the “worst” December for weather-related injuries he has experienced in his six years at the Clinic.
The most common fall-related injury was a broken wrist; other injuries included fractured shoulders, broken hips and concussions, all of which could have been serious.
“Even a simple ground-level fall can be deadly,” Thompson said.
Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2000, 46 percent of fatal falls among older adults, those 65 and older, were due to a brain injury.
The number of emergency department visits also soared at St. Vincent Healthcare last month where 238 patients were treated for fall-related injuries, compared with 139 fall-related visits in December 2012. Not all could be attributed directly to snow and ice, hospital officials said, although they suspect a majority of them were.
Dr. Corby Freitag, who has worked in St. Vincent Healthcare’s emergency department for 10 years, said, “It’s probably one of the busier months I can recall where I saw injuries from people falling on the ice.”
In addition to broken arms, wrists and hips, Freitag said St. Vincent’s emergency department also saw a “fair amount” of patients who slipped on icy steps, fell and injured their lower backs.
Of particular concern are falls among the elderly, said both Freitag and Thompson. Younger people tend to recover quickly from minor orthopedic injuries, which is not always the case with elderly adults. Falls are the leading cause of injuries among older adults. In 2010, about 21,700 older adults died from fall injuries, according to the CDC.
Those who have trouble walking and rely on a walker or cane should take special care to use it during winter to guard against falls.
“I see some who step out thinking they will just grab the newspaper and that’s when it happens,” Freitag said. “I cannot stress enough that they should not chance it.”
Though a city ordinance requires residents to remove snow from city sidewalks 24 hours after a storm, some of those who went to the ER fell on city sidewalks. And despite the city’s snow- and ice-removal efforts, some injured themselves falling on city streets.
In December, the city spent more than four times the amount it spent in December 2012 and used nearly four times the amount of sand and de-icer to keep city streets clear.
Last month, the city used 2,200 tons of sand and 84,000 gallons of de-icer, costing $143,500 to keep ahead of the near-record snowfall, according to Public Works Director David Mumford. In December 2012, the city used a 575 tons of sand, 12,000 gallons of de-icer and spent $32,000 for snow and ice removal.
On Wednesday, Freitag said he treated a man who was carrying a bag of groceries up his stairs when he slipped, fell forward and broke his wrist.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of using a handrail when you go up and down stairs,” Freitag said.
With more than two months of winter remaining and the chance of rain and snow in the forecast, both Freitag and Thompson offer one primary piece of advice: Go slow.