Lux et Lex … et Snocross

All winter long, three UND-connected physicians put their training to use by handling emergencies at the national Snocross Racing Series

Snocross physicians care for injured riders in an austere environment: sometimes at night, and always in freezing temperatures, under stadium lights, and in front of large crowds. YouTube screenshot.

Let medical schools in southern climes staff the first-aid tents serving the World Surfing Championships, say, or the Parasailing Nationals.

For three UND-connected physicians with skills in emergency medicine, including the chairman of the Emergency Medicine Department at the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences, the place to be on North Country winter weekends is trackside at the AMSOIL Snocross Championship series.

That’s where you’ll find them tending to injured racers in the Super Bowl of snowmobile racing.

It’s not quite like providing medical backup at a hockey game, said Dr. Zach Paull, a 2021 graduate of the UND medical school and an AMSOIL Snocross Championship medic. After all, “you generally know what to expect from a hockey game.

“It’s a little different when you have 450-pound sleds flying around the track,” Paull said.

From left, Dr. Jon Solberg, Dr. Emily Woods and Dr. Zach Paull confer in the Snocross Mobile Medical Team’s mobile medical trailer. All UND SMHS graduates (and with Dr. Solberg serving as chair of the School’s Emergency Medicine Department), the three physicians bring a big UND presence to AMSOIL Snocross Championship races, where they help lead the team that offers emergency care. UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences photo.

Dr. Jon Solberg, the chair of UND’s Emergency Medicine Department and Paull’s colleague on the Snocross Mobile Medical Team, agreed. Maybe rodeo is a closer parallel. “But the difference is, we’ve got 15 rodeo athletes riding bulls at the same time and in the same arena,” Solberg said.

Add the fact that the races – whose riders, propelled by 60-mph speeds and 30-foot-high jumps, can fly on their sleds nearly half the length of a football field before touching the ground – take place outdoors in at times below-zero conditions, and you’ve got a series of very exciting but very challenging events, Solberg said.

Snocross racers line up for a practice start. According to the World Snowmobile Association, snocross is the most popular form of snowmobile racing. UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences photo.

‘World-class track-side medical care’

Watching over each race and running out on the track, when necessary, to recover injured riders is the Snocross Mobile Medical Team. The nonprofit organization was formed “to bring world-class track-side medical care to the athletes and crew of the national AMSOIL Championship Snocross series at no cost to the athletes,” the team’s website states.

The 13-member team includes physicians, EMTs, paramedics and other medical professionals, about half of whom are present at each race. Said Solberg, “it’s a small and intimate group of very experienced people, who work together every weekend in the wintertime and do our best to keep the riders and crews safe.

“And everybody on the team who’s a doc is from UND. It just speaks volumes about the medical school and what its alumni go out and do.”

Snocross – the most popular form of snowmobile racing – sees riders on high-performance sleds tackle the jumps and tight turns of motocross, except on snow instead of dirt. The AMSOIL Snocross Championship Series features 17 races across eight weekends. The races take place in northern states from North Dakota to New York and attract top riders from across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan.

Snocross racers jump their snowmobiles 30 feet in the air and up to 90 feet in distance. UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences photo.

Dr. Emily Woods, a 2017 UND SMHS grad, recently completed her residency in Emergency Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. That’s one of the top programs in that specialty in the world.

But Mayo Clinic Hospital’s emergency room is one thing, and Snocross events are another, Woods said.

“I trained at a Level I trauma center,” Woods said. “I had an operating room, I had a surgeon, I had six nurses in my trauma resuscitation bay.

“But out there by the track, it’s me, maybe three or four medics, and a nurse. And we’re trying to decide, what needs to happen right now? Who do we send to the hospital, and who can we deal with right here?

“You’ve got to be someone who works well in an environment where there are limited resources and a lot of unknowns.”

Dr. Emily Woods, UND SMHS Class of 2017, attends to a facial laceration at an AMSOIL Snocross Champioinship event. UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences photo.

Triaging at the track

Moreover, the isolation is just the beginning of the medical team’s challenges for any given race.

The first factor that plays a role is the environment, meaning both the high-speed race itself and also the weather.

Team members are positioned around the track at the race’s start. A rapid-response Polaris Ranger UTV with a custom medical gurney is standing by.

When a rider gets injured, race officials wave yellow flags, alerting the other riders that a medical team is entering the track. Keeping the injured athlete and the medical team member safe is paramount in these moments. If the rider needs to be evacuated, he or she will be transported to the team’s mobile medical trailer – basically, a small but functional emergency room on wheels.

“The trailer provides a warm, safe environment where we can get the pads and helmet off, and see what’s going on,” Solberg said.

What’s going on can be one or more of any number of injuries. Said Woods, “we see dislocated shoulders and broken ankles, but we also see more serious things such as spinal fractures or a punctured lung.”

The sport’s 30-foot jumps mean falls happen, too, as do crushing injuries from sleds landing on riders.

It’s an intense environment that calls upon practitioners’ full range of abilities. These include skills in not only emergency medicine but also human relations, as when decisions must be made about whether riders can get back on the track.

“It’s a balance,” Woods said. “Sometimes you have to take their helmet and say, ‘You can’t race anymore.’

“But these are young athletes who are very driven. So when you’re telling them, ‘You have a dislocated shoulder, you should be in a sling for four weeks,’ you have to remember: That’s four race weekends that they’d need to miss.”

Plus, said Paull, “I’ve seen pro riders dislocate a shoulder in one heat, then have it popped in, and they go out and win the next heat, 20 minutes later. Some of these riders are just a different breed, and they all know what they’re getting into.”

The medical trailer that the Snocross Mobile Medical Team uses is essentially a small emergency room on wheels. UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences photo.

Building friendships, honing skills

The good news is that the fast pace and constant teamwork lead to tremendous camaraderie among the Snocross Mobile Medical members. Solberg served as an Army doctor for seven years, and says the goodwill recalls the best parts of his time in the military: “The satisfaction that you get from being part of a team like this is really wonderful,” he said.

“That’s definitely part of the allure of doing these races.”

Another benefit is accruing to the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences itself. “This Snocross work with ambulance services across our region has led to UND starting, for the first time, an elective rotation for fourth-year medical students on ‘EMS Direction,’” he said.

“Our students will be going out and riding along with the ambulance. They’re riding with the police department and the fire department, and learning how emergency medical services really are managed out in the field.”

Solberg’s goal with that elective and other departmental offerings is to strengthen UND students’ background in emergency medicine. “If you wreck your car almost anywhere in rural North Dakota, the odds are you’ll be cared for by an ambulance crew whose medical director is a UND-trained family medicine doctor,” he said.

“So, we’re trying to make sure all of those students are skilled in emergency medicine. I think the students appreciate that, because they realize that no matter what specialty they go into, they’re probably going to encounter emergencies, and they’ll want to know what to do.”

As this photo of UND SMHS Emergency Medicine Department Chair Dr. Jon Solberg suggests, caring for patients on a Snocross track requires bundling up for cold weather. UND SMHS photo.

North Dakota diligent

For her part, Woods said she’s not surprised that three doctors with UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences ties wound up on the Snocross medical team, one of the more exciting emergency-medicine and sports-medicine gigs around.

UND-trained physicians have a reputation for being industrious and collegial, as well as skilled: “Whenever I’ve interviewed for residency or fellowships, once I say I’m from North Dakota, they’re like, ‘She’s going to work hard.’

“That work ethic is a big part of our reputation, which I think is so cool.”

Solberg agreed. “Even in the military, when I said I was from North Dakota, I can’t count the number of times people said, ‘Oh, I like this guy already, because I know he’ll get the job done,” said Solberg, UND SMHS Class of 2006.

“And I think that’s the same on the Snocross track. There are not a lot of physicians who’d be willing to stand there in 20 below, ready to jump into the fray to care for somebody who’s injured. But the North Dakota docs are willing to do it, you know? That speaks volumes for the school.”

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Editor’s notes: The Snocross Mobile Medical Team is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and depends on donations and sponsorships to operate. For more information or to make a donation, visit the organization’s website.  

The video below, a production of The Formula Fueled by @Sunoco video series, does not mention the physicians profiled above, but does offer a vivid picture of what life on the Snocross Mobile Medical Team is like.

https://youtu.be/mAt5yjc0lOs