It Could Happen to You
JUDY D. VOCK
People go out for an evening of socializing, have some drinks at the local pub and think nothing of it. When this happens in mid-January in upstate New York, or anywhere else susceptible to extreme winter temperatures, it can turn deadly. Here’s how.
A man went out for a few beers at a pub less than a mile from home. As he had done many times before, he left his vehicle at home and walked to the pub so he would not get a ticket for drinking and driving in case he overindulged. While he took several precautions to be safe, he failed to assess all of the hazards, such as the weather conditions. On that particular evening, the temperature was minus 20 F with a wind-chill factor of minus 34 F.
The man had his drinks and talked with his buddies before it was time to head home. He left the bar alone, slipped on ice and struck his head on the concrete sidewalk, knocking him unconscious. He was found dead the next morning. The autopsy revealed hypothermia — not the fall — was the cause of death.
There are two types of hypothermia. Primary hypothermia is due to environmental exposure, while secondary hypothermia is due to a medical condition that lowers the temperature set point. The doctors informed us that the man suffered from primary hypothermia, when the body temperature falls below 95 F. According to the Mayo Clinic, when the body temperature drops, the heart, nervous system and other organs can't work normally.
Left untreated, hypothermia can eventually lead to complete failure of the heart and respiratory system and eventually to death. As the man lay in the snow unconscious, he began to freeze. At temperatures that low, it wouldn’t have taken long for him to succumb to hypothermia. People are sometimes able to recover from hypothermia, but not this young man. The alcohol in his system likely was a contributing factor in his death.
While alcohol may make your body feel warm inside, the Mayo Clinic states “it causes your blood vessels to expand, resulting in more rapid heat loss from the surface of your skin. The body's natural shivering response is diminished in people who've been drinking alcohol. In addition, the use of alcohol or recreational drugs can affect your judgment about the need to get inside or wear warm clothes in cold weather conditions. If a person is intoxicated and passes out in cold weather, he or she is likely to develop hypothermia.”
Had a buddy been walking with him, this man likely would be alive today. Hypothermia is extremely dangerous and can come on quickly. If you plan on an outing when the temperature is cold, remember to never go alone. Also, do not let a buddy leave and walk home while intoxicated. I’m sure the man in this story didn’t think this would be his last night out. It was … and it could happen to you too.