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Doctor: Ski helmet saved 6-year-old's life

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At best, doctors said 6-year-old Julia Griggs would have suffered a "significant brain injury" had she not been wearing a helmet when she hit a tree while downhill skiing last week. At worst? She might not have made it.  

Griggs was skiing with her father at Afton Alps on Thursday night when the accident happened. She raced down the slope ahead of him and hit a tree, head on. 

Griggs, a first grader at Wildwood Elementary School in Mahtomedi, broke her nose, some bones in her face and both bones in her lower right leg. But she was ready to be released from the hospital on Tuesday, because the helmet prevented a serious head injury. 

"It protected her brain, and that's something that we can't really fix, unfortunately," said Dr. Michael McGonigal, director of trauma services at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. "The helmet kept her in perfect condition, so she is fine other than a few things that will heal up now with a little extra care." 

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Griggs and her doll -- both wearing pink casts on their legs -- were wheeled in to face reporters at a news conference Tuesday that Regions held with McGonigal and another doctor who treated her. 

"Wear a helmet," Griggs said when asked if she learned anything from the ordeal. 

Her parents, Bill and Heather Griggs, said all three of their kids have always worn helmets on the slopes. But that isn't the case for many skiers and snowboarders. 

A recent survey by the National Ski Areas Association showed ski helmet use has nearly doubled in the last decade. Still, only 48 percent of the skiers and snowboarders surveyed last season wore helmets. 

"We anticipate that 48 percent will continue to grow," said Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the association. "As people see more helmets on the slopes, they start to think about wearing one themselves."

Some larger ski resorts require helmets for employees, while others require all children to wear them. The National Ski Areas Association has set a goal of having nearly all children under 14 wear helmets by the 2012 ski season in two years, Hawks said. 

Right now the rate is about 77 percent for children 9 and younger, and 66 percent for children ages 10 to 14.

Lawmakers in Canada and Europe have also weighed in on the issue. Officials in Quebec considered requiring helmets on ski slopes after the death of actress Natasha Richardson earlier this year. And Austria approved a law requiring helmets for children under 14 after a woman died in a high-speed collision. 

But at most U.S. ski resorts, skiers and snowboarders -- or their parents -- are the ones who decide whether to wear helmets. And it's not always easy for parents to make sure their kids are protected, McGonigal said. 

"The toughest part is not just getting the helmet but getting your kid to wear the helmet," he said. 

His advice? "Get them involved in wearing those things at a very young age," he said. 

Julia said she never complained about wearing a helmet because it keeps her head warm. She'll have to get a new one if she decides to start skiing again next year. 

When Heather Griggs asked her daughter if she wanted her banged up helmet replaced with a new pink one, Julia nodded. 

"I think she'll be back," Griggs said. "She loves it."