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Profile: Ski slope nurse

After catching the skiing bug as a teenager, Naomi now leads a double life, working out in the mountains in winter and in the UK in summer

After falling in love with the sport at the age of 16 while on a school holiday, skiing was the first thing on Naomi Avery's mind as graduation from her degree in nursing dawned. 

She wanted to get skiing out of her system before embarking on her career in nursing, but although she knew she definitely wanted to do something ski-related, she did not expect to be able to find a job that would allow her to do both:

“When I was at uni, I knew I wanted to get skiing out of my system before embarking on a career, and I thought to myself, 'how is that going to be possible?' Then I came across Viamonde at a career's convention in the last six months of uni. I met Robert [the managing director], and from there, I was like, 'Oh, I can be a nurse at a ski resort!'”

Since graduating from the University of Southampton in 2007, this is her sixth year working at Viamonde. 

Viamonde runs a range of fully inclusive ski programmes and activity camps for children from the ages of 5-18. 

Camp counsellors are responsible for providing ski instruction as well as looking after their general welfare for the duration of their stay. 

While training as a nurse, Naomi (right) had been interested in both orthopedics and cancer care, however, the course of her career was decided when she successfully interviewed for the role as a fracture clinic nurse upon graduation.

Luckily, she was allowed to go to Switzerland between December and April, and come back to work at the clinic in May. 

Furthermore, her role as a fracture clinic nurse and a ski camp 

nurse complemented each other very well, and she hasn't looked back since.

Naomi, 28, is half-way through doing a part-time masters degree in Musculoskeletal Science at University College London, which is what spurred her to pursue a more specialised role in Orthopaedics.

Now working as a fragility advanced nurse practitioner and trauma co-ordinator at Milton Keynes hospital throughout the year, a role she began October 2012, Naomi splits her annual leave between working for Viamonde as a ski camp nurse for a few weeks during the winter season and helping out at their activity camp during the autumn.

As a camp nurse, Naomi is responsible for looking after the health of all the children.

“Although Viamonde works with schools from all over the world, normally the children at each camp come from the same school 

and tend to be the same age group. There can be 15-90 children 

per camp.”

The parents fill in a health form so that the camp staff and Naomi can have an overview of significant medical histories and whether the children are taking any medication or have any allergies

Naomi, originally from Buckinghamshire, also needs to educate the camp staff about what to do if the children suffer from severe allergies and takes care of them when they're up on the mountain. 

The children are taught in groups of around 10 by the Viamonde counsellors. 

Naomi tends not to take a beginner group as she needs to be able to move to provide support if needed:

“I usually take a group that can move around the mountain so if another counselor was in trouble, I could move my group to them and check their child out, whether they've fallen, twisted their knee or something. I would check to see if we need to get the child to the doctor's, call the SOS or in the worst case scenario call out a helicopter.”

Naomi deals with all the typical bumps and bruises that are inevitable with skiing and snowboarding as well as occasionally more serious injuries including twisted knees, broken wrists among other fractures. Naomi also encourages healthy communal living in the chalet, including reminders about hydration, application of sun screen and regular washing of hands. While looking after the welfare of the children remains the same each week, the frequency of injuries sustained ranges widely.

“Some weeks there will be no injuries, and other weeks it's a bit busier with visits to the doctors. We tend to err on the side of caution and of course, if there is any doubt, we will get an X-ray at the local doctors in resort. The majority of the time the child will be back at dinner with a smile on their face telling stories of their day and adventures!”

Though generally, it's just blisters, bumps and grazes, and after patching them up with her first aid kit, the children can continue skiing, on the very rare occasion, it's more serious:

“One camp I was at, a girl broke her back. She was going over a jump and landed backwards in an awkward position, and she had to be helicoptered off. The SOS were very prompt in coming over. We're at the top of a mountain, so though it takes 45 minutes by car, it takes three minutes to get down to the hospital by helicopter. So it's pretty quick, they are very very good. They have a doctor on board as well as the pilot, and they're down at the hospital probably before you've stood up again.”

In cases such as the above, when it's not within the realm of her nursing role, things are left to the SOS, and the camp staff will provide support over at the hospital.

The weather can be very volatile up on the mountain and counsellors are always vigilant so as not to lose members of the group if the visibility suddenly changes.

“As a ski instructors, we ski to the conditions on the mountain and the group ability, so it is very rare to lose a child - I'm forever counting to 10 over my shoulder while skiing and when we stop. On the odd occasion I've only got to nine, it's usually when they have stopped to help someone and ended up taking a left instead of a right or were just too enthralled looking at the scenery and took a different route.”

There are specific procedures in place for when a child gets lost, and they have always found the children within minutes of their being separated from the group.

Being high up in the mountains, and away from their parents often for the first time, it can seem as though they are a world away. However, for some children, the change in environment is more drastic than others.

“Once we had a group from Cameroon—when they left Cameroon, it was really hot, about 30°C. They were in their shorts and t-shirts when they arrived at the resort in one of the coldest weeks that winter. It was about -30°C, so there was a 60°C difference, and the poor kids just didn't understand the cold having never known anything like it. So that week, there were lots of hot chocolate breaks!”

“There was another group from Uganda, and the kids had never seen snow before. They ran off the bus so excitedly. It was a sunny day, so they probably thought it would be warm. They ran off in their shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. One of them picked up the snow and looked at me with surprise as though to say, 'It's cold!' Yes - it's cold! To see the elation on his face at seeing snow for the first time.”

At no time is the magic of the Swiss mountains more apparent than during Christmas time, and over the years, Naomi has managed to spend quite a few Christmases there.

“During Christmas, it's lovely actually. Obviously, it's a white Christmas, and we go out on the slopes like any other day.”

There is also a group of children from India who join them each Christmas. They come with a travel company based in Bombay who organises adventure holidays, and although the children don't usually celebrate Christmas, they join in the festivities nonetheless.

 “They love celebrating it with us, and seeing us get so excited. We cook a traditional Christmas dinner alongside Indian food. They also bring over snacks and things from India as well as traditional Indian presents. Everyone's got Santa hats on and we do presents for each other and play games. It's a very nice environment and everyone's very friendly. It's all very festive,” says Naomi.

Talking about what qualifications are necessary for nurses who wish to apply for work as a Viamonde nurse, Naomi says that it is important to be a competent skier as if there's someone who's hurt on the slopes, the nurse needs to be able to get to them whichever slopes they may be on. 

Furthermore, they need to have the equivalent of a nursing degree from countries accepted by Viamonde. If they are teaching skiing as well, they also need to have a teaching qualification. Although Naomi took her skiing qualifications only after she got there, she says that nurses these days who apply usually already have their skiing qualifications.

Having just come back from helping out at Viamonde's autumn activity camp, Naomi has already made plans to go back next February during the busy half-term period.

“I said I'd only do one season when I started, and this is me six or seven years later,” Naomi says.

With lots of returning staff, many of the people she's worked with have become close friends over the years, and Naomi says that it is like flying from “home to home.”

“There are people from all over the world. Staff from the UK, Canada and some from New Zealand as well. I usually go thinking, just one more season. But then, once you get out there, put on the orange jacket, you get in the mode, and I can't not do it. Although it's work, it's a very different kind of work. I really enjoy it. It's just a bonus that you get paid, and I think I would do it even if I didn't get paid.”