Frank Kology and his wife, Delores, learned the dangers of hypothermia about 20 years ago when the Sun City Summerlin couple decided to hike to the top of Mount Charleston.
It was July. They were dressed for summer. The prevailing winds brought cold air during the last, long leg of their ascent.
“She grew faint and weak, and I knew I was in trouble,” he said. “There was a metal sheet up there … I had her sit on it. It was in a depressed area, so we were out of the wind then. I hugged her to keep her warm. She was shivering. She was out of it, kind of limp and listless. I knew we had to get down off that darn mountain.”
The couple made it back, and Delores recovered quickly. Their mistake is an easy one to make, according to experts.
Most people associate Las Vegas with hot weather. But cooler temperatures prevail when summer wanes. The record low for Las Vegas was 8 degrees Fahrenheit, set Jan. 13, 1963, with record snowfall of 9 inches during a 24-hour period set Jan. 4 and 5, 1974.
When temperatures dip into freezing as they did in 2010, and New Year’s Eve revelers consume alcohol, they are at risk for hypothermia, said Pat Foley, emergency medical services chief for the Clark County Fire Department.
Foley said the homeless make up the majority of hypothermia victims his crew sees “because they have inadequate shelter, and they lack layers of clothing. In the wintertime, we’re taking several hypothermia calls a week.”
The speed at which a person can be at risk for hypothermia depends on many factors, including how well the person was prepared for the cold, said Dr. Frank Pape, director of emergency services at Summerlin Hospital Medical Center, 657 N. Town Center Drive. Factors that increase risk include old age, diabetes, hypothyroidism, certain medications, trauma with blood loss and drug or alcohol use.
Water exposure will decrease body temperature up to 25 times faster then cold air.
“During my training in Chicago, we treated several cases of hypothermia and various degrees of frostbite each winter,” Pape said. “It was very interesting how each person reacted to their particular situation. In most cases, (hypothermia) can be prevented with proper planning.”
When someone is suspected of having hypothermia, don’t try to warm them with hot water or heating pads, Pape said. Extreme heat can cause irregular heartbeats and even death. Warm them with layers of clothing until you can get to the nearest hospital.
“Upon arrival to the ER, my main concern is getting to understand the type of exposure, core body temperature and any significant past medical history that would put the patient at a higher risk for a fatal outcome,” Pape said.
The Mayo Clinic’s website at mayoclinic.org notes that shivering is likely the first thing people will notice as the temperature starts to drop. Shivering is the body’s defense against cold, an attempt to warm itself.
Other symptoms of mild hypothermia include dizziness, hunger, quicker breathing, nausea, difficulty speaking, slight confusion, sleepiness, increase in heart rate and lack of coordination.
As hypothermia worsens, shivering stops, and the person will exhibit a lack of coordination, slurred speech, low energy and a lack of concern over their condition. At this stage, the person experiences hot sensations and may try to remove warm clothing. He will have a weak pulse, shallow breathing and progress into unconsciousness.
Hypothermia is not always a result of being outdoors. An older person may experience mild hypothermia in indoor temperatures that are fine for a younger or healthier adult, experts said.
Safety officials said residents should call 911 or take the person to the hospital if hypothermia is suspected. Move them carefully and slowly. Jarring movements can trigger dangerous, irregular heartbeats. Carefully remove wet clothing, and cover him in layers of blankets while awaiting emergency assistance.
Contact Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan at email@example.com or 702-387-2949.