On a Thursday afternoon in late January, just as this magazine is being rushed off to press, I find myself in an examination room at Vail Dermatology, wearing one of those embarrassing surgical gowns, legs dangling over the edge of a cold vinyl-padded table (aside from being an inveterate procrastinator, I’m also a stickler to tradition: no matter how busy you may be, January is about tending to those nettlesome tasks you ought to do once a year, like refreshing the batteries in all your home smoke detectors and submitting to an annual skin cancer exam). After a knock on the door, Dr. Karen Nern enters, clutching a notepad computer. She isn’t my usual physician, but I recognize her instantly.
“Hey, weren’t you one of the docs from this practice who saved that guy’s life on Vail Mountain last winter?” I ask.
“Yes, I was,” says Nern, who founded the Edwards practice with her husband, Tom, in 2004. “Has it been a year already?”
She taps a few buttons on her electronic notepad.
“Yep, it happened exactly a year ago this weekend. I should send Michael some flowers.”
“Michael” is Michael Laush, a regular guy from Euclid, Ohio, who came to Vail last January with a childhood friend (Slavko Kucinic) to celebrate their 40th birthdays with a three-day ski vacation. Their timing was auspicious, coinciding with more than 20 inches of new snow falling over as many days; on their last day, January 19, 2019, the Blue Sky Basin snow stake registered 11 more. The powder that morning was deep and pillowy, and Laush, like thousands on the mountain that morning, was loving it. Until he nearly died. The last thing he remembers was standing at the top of Marmot Valley, a black run in the Back Bowls, then sending it with a push of his poles. He fell once, recovered, then fell again, and Vail Mountain nearly swallowed him whole.
A news clip archived on Channel 9’s website describes what happened next in gripping detail.
“He came to Colorado to celebrate his 40th birthday and a man from Ohio nearly did not survive his ski trip,” narrates news anchor Kyle Clark. “He says he went headfirst and lost consciousness into a pocket of snow that was as deep as he was tall.”
Seeing a pair of motionless plastic boots sticking out of the snow, a bystander started screaming for help. Nearby, the Nerns, who had been enjoying an employee appreciation ski day with their staff, sprinted into action. While a growing throng of good Samaritans frantically dug into the quicksand-like powder, Tom Nern and other bystanders grabbed Laush by the boots and belt of his ski pants and heaved, hauling the six-foot-six-inch, 270-pound skier out of the hole. Inverted for perhaps seven minutes, Laush had stopped breathing and had no pulse. He was clinically dead.
“She said, Michael, when we pulled you out, you were dark purple,” Laush recalls Karen Nern later telling him, on camera with a Channel 9 reporter from his home in Ohio. “There’s no way.”
Nevertheless, Karen Nern and Beth McCrann, a retired local ob-gyn who also stopped to help, started CPR while Vail ski patrollers raced to the scene. After three cycles of chest compressions and rescue breaths, they coaxed Laush back to life.
“He started breathing,” Nern tells Channel 9 on camera from the ski resort. “And his heart came roaring back into his chest.”
In fact, Nern weeks earlier had just recertified her CPR training, a life-saving skill more and more locals now possess, thanks to the work of local nonprofit Starting Hearts (see “Heart of Vail” in the Midwinter/Spring 2020 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek).
“That she tried to do CPR is amazing because they pretty much thought it was a lost cause,” says Laush, back in Euclid. “It’s a miracle I’m going to be able to celebrate my 40th birthday, that’s all there is to it.”
In the Channel 9 news studio, Clark concludes the story this way: “Laush was asked if he was going to give up skiing after this and said, ‘No chance.’ He plans to come to Vail next year and meet up with some of the friends who saved him.”
On the last weekend in January, Laush did just that, and he’ll fly back to Denver at the end of February to be there when his rescuers receive an American Red Cross Community Hero award.
Editor, Vail-Beaver Creek