Alaska’s chief medical officer has some tips for staying safe with summer activities

A teenage boy in a red bicycle helmet kicks up dust on a mountain bike.
A young man kicks up dust while riding his mountain bike at Hilltop Ski Area (which becomes a downhill bicycle course in the summer) on June 21, 2022. (Valerie Kern, Alaska Public Media)

Alaskans are transitioning to summertime activities — and while that often means having a lot of fun, there’s also a whole different set of ways to get hurt.

Whether it’s biking without a helmet or drinking out on open water, there are plenty of risky behaviors that might land someone in an emergency room, or worse.

Dr. Anne Zink is Alaska’s chief medical officer, but she’s also an emergency room physician. And Zink says she and others in Alaska’s ERs have already noticed an uptick with summer’s arrival.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Anne Zink: Yeah, summers get busy. And in fact, my most recent set of shifts were like, “Oh, man, it’s summer. Here we go,” because people feel the sun, and they’re out and about. You know, there are a couple big categories. The first I would say is helmets. We have the highest rate of closed head injury or head injury in the country. And we actually have the highest mortality from closed head injury in the country. And we have a lot of accidents. It’s our number one reason for, particularly youth, for death. And so making sure that kids are helmeted, if they’re riding a snowmachine or an ATV or their bicycle. Making sure it fits is really important. Staying off the roads, you know, a car versus an ATV, a car versus a bike, doesn’t go so well. You only have one brain, and we’re really not good at fixing the brains.

Category Two is we do a lot of, like, fun, adventurous things. And that’s why a lot of us live here. And it’s fantastic. But again, there’s things that are hard to protect or heal, like your eyes. So if you’re out fishing, please wear eye protection. I can get a fish hook out of almost everywhere else except for your eye. Also thinking about sharp objects, you know, always going away from yourself. There’s always a ton of chainsaw accidents this time of year.

And then the last kind of big category that I put in there is drinking plus machinery, explosions, sharp objects, does not go well. You would think that that was self-explanatory…

Casey Grove: But that’s all the fun stuff.

AZ: I know, but let me tell you, like, if you’re gonna drink, like have fun at a party at home without fire, explosives or sharp things. Not riding an ATV. Not waterskiing. It’s just, those are the injuries that we see. I guess it’s the paranoid life of an ER doctor, as you see all what happens and can go badly in that space. But, man, there can be some bad injuries that involve drinking plus something pretty extreme.

CG: I’m thinking about water in general being open. Not to be too grim, but if somebody, you know, maybe wasn’t wearing personal floatation device, and there was some kind of an accident in open water, do you see patients like that? Or do they even make it that far?

AZ: Yeah, it depends a lot on the patient. But we see it every year, particularly the kiddos are just heartbreaking. You know, being down at the river or playing, and then suddenly, you know, parents turn their back, they’re not sure where their kid is, and their kid had, you know, gone to go get something in the water, fell in, and then they’re found drowned. Sometimes they come in. Sometimes they’re too far gone. It really depends on the person and the kid. So just always making sure that your kiddos have personal floatation devices. It’s great to have the Kids Don’t Float campaigns. You’ll find at a lot of the lakes and a lot of the docks there’s PFDs that people can use. Again, as adults, showing that you can wear yours as well. We see a lot of teenage men and young adult men who don’t wear flotation devices, get really drunk and are out doing stuff on water. And that’s the other place we see a lot of drownings and really severe accidents.

CG: And then, just one last thing, turning back to fishhooks, I know that you have a special kit in your emergency department, right? What’s in the kit? I mean, are there things that maybe people should have with them? Or what kind of tips and tools do you use to get a fishhook out of somebody?

AZ: Oh, it’s pure on, you know, Lowe’s toolkit, essentially. It’s literally a tackle box toolkit with all of the tools that you would imagine are in a toolkit in general, basically a lot of different things to hold really strong and to pull really hard or to cut metal. So, yeah, I mean, people who fish know how fish hooks go in and they know how they go out. So you can kind of push them through or you can kind of pull them back. It’s all in the wrist. It’s just a quick motion most of the time, but it depends on the size and location. And so oftentimes what we do, sometimes we numb them, sometimes we don’t, depending on the person and what they want, and depending on the location. But usually it’s just either a push through or a pull out. And usually we cut the barb at the top so that, you know, you just got that one barb that you need to get out, particularly with those three-pronged ones. So we see patients who take out their own all the time. We’re happy to take them out. It’s fun going around to the emergency departments in the state, and most that are around a fishing area have like cool maps back in their nurses’ lounge of all the places they’ve taken out fishhooks but…

CG: Wait, so the places on the human body?

AZ: On the human body. So yeah, some have like a mat to just, we just have this like quilt with fish on it. And then people hang up the fish hooks there. But down in Soldotna, they had one that had a human body and people just put the fish hooks on it kind of like a Tag the Tail on the Donkey, sort of like, “This is where I got the fish out,” space, because, yeah.

CG: Kind of like a game of Operation crossed with Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

AZ: Yeah.

CG: Is there anything else? I don’t know, a type of injury or summer related thing that I should ask you about?

AZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that people are, you know, out, so making sure that you’re drinking clean water or kind of filtered water. As we start to see more injuries, they are keeping an eye on, like, Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and any sort of warnings that you may see in a region. So we work closely with a couple other agencies to make sure that those are posted, either on local websites or on the beaches.

Making sure that if you’re canning, you’re doing it correctly. So we always have, you know, some cases of botulism and people getting sick in that direction. And in general, just a lot of people doing a lot and not sleeping very well. So usually this time of year we see a lot of people going out and being super excited, and so then they start to get into injuries. By the end of the season, they’re trying to get, like, one more last thing in, and they’re exhausted and then they have injuries. So, you know, making sure you sleep, too, during the summer can be hard, with all the light and all the excitement and all the, you know, friends and families visiting. But make sure you sleep, eat, take care of yourself, and then get out. I mean, we just live in such an amazing state, so enjoying what we can for the summer

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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