Hypothermia Scenario

Road closed? Is this a joke?

Sarah cranes her neck, trying to read the blinking sign. Not a great time for a detour, but it’s not like she was super excited about spending eight hours straight with all her crazy relatives anyway. Sorry, guys. At least benevolent dictator Google Maps always has an alternate route ready.

GPS leading the way, she takes the next exit. If she’s super late, everyone will notice but only her mom will really give her a hard time. The two-lane road is plowed, but still slick, and she’s never driven it before. A deer appears. Reacting just a second too late, Sarah jerks the wheel to the right, then over-corrects. The Camry spins into the ditch.

She lifts her hands off the wheel. Hyperventilating. Just take a few deep breaths. She takes the key out of the ignition. Just sit for a minute. A few minutes later, she re-starts the engine and cautiously tests it in reverse. Nope.

Sarah knows what to do in this situation. She has supplies in the trunk, clay cat litter to help the tires grip on ice. She gets out and checks the ditch situation, opens the trunk, spreads the cat litter on the ice. She reverses again and the car shudders, reluctantly budges. She gets out to eyeball the ditch again.

Click. Wait. Oh, no. No no no no. Out of habit, she hit the lock button. The car is locked. The car which holds her phone, Triple-A card, and emergency kit.

Unless Sarah is unable to get inside, she won’t last long. Unable to get into her car, she is out of good options. If she is able to keep to the road, she may be able to make her way to a house or gas station, or be found by another driver.

Even if found frozen, and for all intents and purposes, seemingly very dead, Sarah has a chance. She could be re-warmed. She could receive advanced medical treatment, and she could make a full recovery. She might suffer brain damage. She might escape with just frost burns to her hands and feet. Minor frostbite never killed anybody.

Every year in the Midwest and Northeast, there are cases of fatal hypothermia. These often involve stranded motorists. Even inside the vehicle, the battery or gas might run out. Running the heater indefinitely is a good way to kill the battery or suffocate. Running it for 10 minutes every hour is a better choice. In a cold region, a robust car kit that includes a light source, blankets, cat litter, etc. is a good idea.

Another common scenario for hypothermia involves intoxication. A college student who stumbles out of a bar and passes out in an alley. Someone who makes it home, but realizes too late they lost their keys, or gives the Uber driver the wrong address entirely and realizes it too late. Intoxicated people don’t make good decisions.

Hypothermia occurs when body temperature drops below 34C (about 94F) and symptoms include shivering, panting, your heart racing, and feeling fatigued. In advanced stages, a person becomes confused and ultimately loses consciousness. There have been a number of cases of people recovering from extreme hypothermia after they re-warmed.

More information on hypothermia and frostbite here

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