A weekend tragedy highlights a risk that may not be so obvious in the heat of summer. A father is dead after attempting to save his young sons from the effects of cold water. The family was at Upper Barker Lake on Boulder Mountain in Garfield County when the two boys, ages 5 and 7, decided to practice swimming in the middle of the lake. Their father, 32-year-old Scott Pederson, was in a pedal boat nearby when he noticed that they were struggling to keep their heads above water. He jumped in to help and got the attention of other family members on shore. His father-in-law and brother-in-law swam to the pedal boat and were able to pull the boys in to safety, but when they turned to help Scott, he had slipped below the surface and they were unable to find him.
At the time of the accident, the water temperature was just over 50 degrees. Hypothermia can set in quickly and surprise even the most experienced swimmers like Scott Pederson. Once it does set in, hypothermia can limit limb movement, hinder breathing and ultimately cause loss of consciousness. Hypothermia induced by cold water is called immersion hypothermia and is described by Wikipedia as:
Immersion Hypothermia – Hypothermia of both the extremities and body core continues to be a major limitation to diving in cold water. Cooling in the extremities is often the limitation to operations. The limitation of finger dexterity due to pain or numbness decreases general safety and work capacity, which consequently increases the risk of other injuries. For divers breathing heliox below 100 meters wearing hot water suit, the inspired gas must be heated, or the symptoms of hypothermia can set in without the divers realizing it. Other predisposing factors leading to immersion hypothermia include dehydration, inadequate rewarming with repetitive operations, starting operations while wearing cold, wet dry suit undergarments, sweating with work, inadequate thermal insulation (for example, thin dry suit undergarment), lack of heated breathing gas with deep heliox diving, and poor physical conditioning. Moderate and severe cases of hypothermia require immediate hospitalization. In a hospital, external treatments, such as heated blankets are used to warm patients with mild hypothermia, as well as internal treatments such as injected warm fluids. For severe cases of hypothermia, patients may undergo lavage (washing) of the bladder, stomach, chest and abdominal cavities with warmed fluids. These patients are at high risk for arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), and care must be taken to minimize jostling and other disturbances until they have been sufficiently warmed, as these arrhythmias are very difficult to treat while the victim is still cold. An important tenet of treatment is that a person cannot be considered dead until he/she has been adequately warmed. Remarkable accounts of recovery after prolonged cardiac arrest have been reported in patients with hypothermia, such as children who have been submerged in cold water for more than 15 minutes (called mini-hibernation). It is presumed that this is because the low temperature prevents some of the cellular damage that occurs when blood flow and oxygen are lost for an extended period of time.
And another hypothermia tragedy was narrowly averted today. A 9-year-old girl fell into the Provo River near Bridal Veil Falls and family members immediately jumped in to get her. They were unable to catch her before she was swept downstream, but rescuers located her about a mile downstream and she was transported to Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City. Meanwhile, the family members that jumped into the river to assist were transported for treatment of hypothermia.
To avoid this dangerous condition, be aware of water temperatures when recreating in and around water and recognize that temperatures drop quickly below the water surface. And if you are going to swim in mountain rivers or lakes, wear a life jacket and get out at the first signs of hypothermia symptoms. If symptoms do develop, seek medical care immediately.
Bret Hanna of Wrona DuBois in Utah, focuses exclusively on litigating plaintiffs’ medical malpractice and catastrophic personal injury cases. He has represented clients in state and federal courts, in mediations, and in administrative proceedings in Michigan and Utah since 1991.