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What the Titanic Taught Me: A Lesson in Hypothermia

For the last 25 years the story surrounding the tragic sinking of a supposedly unsinkable ship has fascinated me. I find the Titanic captivating, perhaps because while the ship’s catastrophic end actually played out in real life – 100 years ago this Sunday, to be exact – the entire saga seems much more like fiction written for the big screen.

Speaking of…

What started as an interest in the Titanic grew to an obsession when, as a freshman in college, I may or may not have seen James Cameron’s blockbuster movie 10 times in the theaters.

As I watched this movie over and over again, the lines between reality and fiction began to blur. My equally-obsessed friends and I spent far too many late nights lamenting over Jack’s death at the hands of the sea and pondering what he could have done differently in order to have survived and gone on to live a full and happy life with his beloved Rose. We really should have been studying.

Eventually my interest in Titanic (the movie) diminished and the laminated poster of Leonardo DiCaprio came down off my wall. I forgot all about the scene in the movie when, after the ship sinks and Jack and Rose are struggling in the water, Jack insists Rose lie on the floating wooden door while he clutches her hands and his body dangles in the cold, dark ocean. Until I took my next Red Cross First Aid Basics class, that is.

Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t need a first aid class instructor to tell me that Jack, Rose, and the other passengers on the Titanic suffered from hypothermia. What I hadn’t been able to figure out (or Google, since we weren’t yet Googling back then), was why the cold led to Jack’s death and not Rose’s.

Did you know that heat is lost more quickly in water than on land? Water temperatures that would be quite tolerable as air temperatures can quickly lead to hypothermia. A water temperature of a seemingly warm 79 degrees (F) can lead to death after prolonged exposure, a water temperature of 50 degrees can lead to death in around an hour, and a water temperature of 32 degrees – like the ocean water on the night the Titanic sank – can lead to death in as few as 15 minutes. Scary stuff.

Most of the time (though not in Jack and Rose’s situation), hypothermia – when the body’s core temperature drops below the temperature required for normal metabolism and body function – sneaks up on its victims. Whether in the water or not, what starts out as just a chill can escalate from mild to moderate to severe hypothermia in a short period of time if the person remains in the cold or even cool environment.

We don’t necessarily think of spring and summer as times of the year when hypothermia is an issue; we tend to worry instead about heat exhaustion and heat stroke. But right now, warm temperatures during the day draw people outside without extra layers of clothing, and then suddenly cool or even cold temperatures at night can lead to serious problems for those who aren’t prepared.

So in the name of spring weather preparedness, here are a few tips to keep yourself and your family safe from hypothermia this season and throughout the year.

Prevent hypothermia:
- In cold temperatures, wear warm, multi-layered clothing as well as hand, feet and head protection. In ALL temperatures, bring extra layers so that should the weather or your environment change unexpectedly you can keep warm and dry.
- Change into dry clothes whenever becoming wet.
- Find appropriate shelter when temperatures drop.
- Drink lots of water to improve circulation.

Signals of hypothermia:
- Shivering, numbness, glassy stare
- Apathy, weakness, impaired judgment
- Loss of consciousness

What to do for hypothermia:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number.
- Move the person to a warm place.
- Monitor breathing and circulation, and give rescue breathing or perform CPR if needed.
- Remove any wet clothing and dry the person.
- Warm the person slowly by wrapping them in blankets or putting them in dry clothing. Warm the core – NOT the extremities – first.
- DO NOT warm the person too quickly.

Very few of of us will find ourselves victims of a shipwreck, dangling off the edge of a wooden door in the middle of the freezing ocean. Thank goodness. But many of us will encounter weather or environments that can and will lead to hypothermia if appropriate actions aren’t taken. Be prepared!

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