Math, ski patrolling make an eclectic mix

By ZACH FENT/Montana State News

First, her eyes begin to squint.

Then, the smile from ear to ear starts to sprout.

A quick breath.

“Oh, this is a good one,” she said with the same excitement that many patrollers get when telling accident stories from their past.

“The worst accident I’ve been on, not really the most life threatening, but a good one,” she said, “was a kid who was going to fast through trees. Some ski racers said probably 40 mph when he hit a tree.”

From her momentary pause before detailing the proper velocity of the young boy’s travel, it is likely that her speed recount has a minor growth  spurt each time she retells this particular story.

“You can still see in the tree where he hit. When we cut his pants off, there was a piece of bone missing in his femur. It was pretty intense! It fell out into my hands!”

She cupped her hands as if she was still holding the fragment of femur in her palms.

“We pulled traction and got him to the hospital fast,” she exclaimed with her signature laugh, “with a plastic goodie bag for the ortho!”

Think of the ideal superhero. For some, an orphan-turned wealthy entrepreneur may come to mind, investing millions to become the strongest adversary of evil. Others might think of that ordinary news reporter wearing black-rimmed bifocals and sporting a worn-out but always freshly-pressed suit. That unseen hero who watches over and protects the community when not writing local news stories.

In place of the tattered suit, Danielle Pettry wears her signature Carhartt pants with her Intermountain Medical Educators (IMME) tee-shirt tucked in. A pair of Oakley sunglasses, the ends connected by a light blue Patagonia glasses strap, are always on top of her head. Her hair is pulled straight back into a bun. The shoes she has on are eye catching, a screamingly bright pink and purple. They’re almost out of place from the backdrop of brown practicality.

Walking down the hallway to her office, her characteristic laugh is easily recognized by her friends, students, and co-workers. Pettry always has a smile on her face and the energy she emanates is infectious.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Pettry received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from West Virginia State University, a small school close to Charleston.

“West Virginia is a lot like a mini-Montana,” said Pettry, “they have skiing, they have fishing, but the fishing is nowhere near as good … you can probably imagine how the skiing is. It’s mostly rural, Montana even has bigger cities than back home …T he biggest difference is that you can drive across West Virginia in 4 hours.”

Her eyes started to squint in preparation for her explosive laugh, “Everyone says that you are always an hour way from Walmart. It’s ridiculous, always an hour. Such a stupid joke.”

Now, she attends Montana State University as a Ph.D. candidate for mathematics education.

She knew what was going to be asked: why teaching and why mathematics?

“I guess I’ve always known I wanted to teach. But why math? I don’t know. I was always really good at it and it was easy for me, so I thought it would be a great starting place.” Pettry added, “When I was in math classes, I would feel like the teachers would have a hard time explaining something, and I could explain it to my friends in a way better than the teacher.”

This skill hasn’t left her. When students take a course from her, they are expecting on the first day to find a stiff-neck in a bowtie who completely lacks a sense of humor. They don’t expect to find someone like Pettry.

Chase Raffaele, a former student of Pettry’s said, “She was so different, she is a down-to-earth kind of teacher who knows that not everyone is innately good at math, but wants them to be.”

Pettry proved to be one of Raffaele’s more influential instructors at MSU. “When anyone had a question, she wouldn’t just answer it with the attitude that we should already know it. Danielle cared. She would go deep and find out exactly where our problem was,” said Raffaele (pun intended).

Co-workers of Pettry see her connect with her students.

“She is amazing,” said Clinton Watton, another Ph.D. student who shares an office with Pettry and multiple other graduate student instructors. Like Pettry, he also teaches calculus I and II.

“I’ve never seen someone get results like her,” said Watton, “People just take to her…She has an ability to take complex ideas and convert them into a simple and easy to follow lesson. Her students easily take home some of the best grades during exams.”

“Not to mention that she is the life of the office,” added Watton. Others sitting nearby listening in began to look over with mischievous grins and nod in agreement.

“There is not one day where we are not laughing our butts off at her jokes or quick witted comments,” said Watton.

However, Pettry’s superhero alter ego exists outside of the classroom. She might not wear spandex, but she has a long history of taking to her snowboard.

From a young age, Pettry has been involved in snow sports. When she was 15, Pettry joined a snowboarding team at her home mountain in West Virginia. Dedicated to learning terrain park skills, racing and mastering bumps and glades, she fell in love with the sport.

A year later, Pettry was teaching snowboarding lessons. It was an easy way for her to make some money “without actually working,” Pettry said, “and I knew out West I’d be able to get a job easier as a snowboard instructor than a ski instructor.”

Snow sports run in the Pettry family. Her dad runs the weekend National Ski Patrol (NSP) program. It wasn’t long before he and the rest of the patrol started recruiting the talented boarder.

“I started living on the mountain, playing, practicing, and working. It was only right to join the ski patrol…really it was that or I’d have to go into management, and that would’ve sucked,” said Pettry. When she was 19, Pettry enrolled in the Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) course through the National Ski Patrol.  This license gives NSP members the training necessary to respond to medical emergencies in an outdoor environment. But she wasn’t done there.

Pettry had her sights set on patrolling in Big Sky country.

Big Sky Resort requires additional training in order to patrol; she needed to be an EMT. So, 5 years ago Pettry received her license through the IMME.

As with just about everything Pettry does, she had a knack for it.

EMT courses largely consist of practicing first aid skills in theoretical accident scenarios. Having had much of this training before, she outshined many of her classmates.

“I thought it was just going to be a course I took to become a ski patroller, but no,” she said with exaggeration, “… at the end of the course, I was showing a partner how to do the scenarios. That’s when the lead instructor Katie asked if I wanted to come help teach the next class. She’d even pay me. And I was like Hell yeah! Why not? Gotta make some money, right?”

The week after receiving her EMT license, Pettry began doing what she does best: teaching. Now, she instructs for all 5 of the courses taught throughout the year.

IMME is a seven-week accelerated course not for the faint of heart. They meet three days a week, four hours each day.

It’s hard to fathom how she has enough time to fit everything she does into the 24-hour allotment of the day.

“It’s easy,” she said. “First, up at 7 a.m. Then, at school by 8 a.m. I usually try to get a little research work done in the mornings. That’s mostly analyzing interviews I’ve taken, sending out emails, or working on my dissertation.”

When Pettry starts to talk about anything, she gets excited. As she continues her recount of her daily routine, she laughs to herself.

“Oh, then my favorite! Lunch. Lunch is a big one, usually I have lunch somewhere,” she said, “Then I prep to teach for that day or the next one. Which consists of some grading; then I teach. I have a couple hours to do some grading or more prep work. After that, I’m going to EMT class until about 9 p.m. Then, finally,” she said a little winded from talking so fast, “I go out with the other instructors to have a couple beers. Go to bed, wake up, repeat.”

“Ski patrol days are usually a lot different,” she said, “and a lot easier. I leave my house by 6:30 a.m., drive up, get there at about 7 a.m., and save a life or two.”

Much to her apparent dismay, she doesn’t have a long cape or fly around from place to place, but when she is called to duty, she dawns a white cross and becomes a guardian of the mountain.

She is easily one of the safest math teachers at MSU.

– Edited by Emily Fowler

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