January 7, 2010

Cases highlight hypothermia danger


The Fargo-Moorhead area is a bustling metropolitan community on the North Dakota and Minnesota border off of Interstate 94. The area is comprised of the sister cities of Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota. It is home to nearly 187,000 people and is known for its remarkable warmth and hospitality. It is a wonder, then, why two teenagers in five years would have been left to wander its darkened city streets, alone and intoxicated, for hours in bitterly cold temperatures. In a community that size, why weren't they spotted earlier?

Though the cases occurred five years apart, they have striking similiarities. Both young men became disoriented after a house party around 1 a.m., and both wandered around in the cold for hours after attempts to use their cell phones or to take refuge indoors were in vain. The first young man, 19-year-old college student, Patrick Kycia, was found in the Red River in 2005. The second, 18-year-old Jacob Eichelberger, was found alive but severely hypothermic. He was taken to the hospital on New Year's day 2010. 

Jacob Eichelberger
(Photo credit: Kare11.com)

Many homes and bars in the Fargo-Moorhead area were full of people celebrating the start of 2010 while Jacob Eichelberger, 18, wandered around Fargo disoriented. Jacob had attempted to call a friend about 1:30 a.m., but he wasn't sure where he was; once the body temperature drops a person will become immediately disoriented. For the next few hours, family and friends searched for him in vain. He may have been outside for most or all of that time. Fortunately, someone called the police when Jacob tried to get inside a church. Jacob was found without a jacket or shoes in -7 degree below zero weather with an arctic windchill of 30 below. He had become hypothermic and felt hot, so he began to shed articles of clothing--a cruel effect of hypothermia called paradoxical undressing. Had it not been for the citizen who took the time to call, Jacob would only have lasted about another 45 minutes outside.

Jacob Eichelberger recovering in hospital
(Photo credit: Kare11.com)
He was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center and listed in serious condition to recover from severe frostbite. Medication seems to have helped reverse at least some of the damage to his frozen limbs.

Sadly, Jacob's story is not that different from that of  Patrick Kycia, a well-liked University of Minnesota-Moorhead student, just five years before. Only Patrick's story had a much more tragic outcome.

Patrick Kycia, 19, went to a party at the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house, a few blocks away from his apartment. He had only planned to make a quick stop at the party, but the 200 partygoers and fun-filled atmosphere captivated him. The fraternity house had a reputation for parties and that night they were selling beer for $1 a can and passing around whiskey. Patrick, who already had a few drinks before he arrived at the party, also did several whiskey shots with his friends. By 1 a.m., he was seen sitting on a stairway, resting his head against the wall and becoming unresponsive. He staggered out of the party sometime between 1-2 a.m. to make his way home. He made it 3-1/2 blocks, a little over half way, before turning into a driveway to vomit. Then at 3:52 a.m., Patrick called his roommate, who heard nothing but a muffled noise on the other end, possibly because the phone was still inside Patrick's pocket. There was no answer when the roommate called Patrick back.

Patrick Kycia
(Photo credit: Family photo)
It appears that at the time the call was made, Patrick was already on the other end of town. A witness recalled seeing  Patrick walking alone toward the river on Eighth Street near Main Avenue sometime between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. But why the young man had headed off campus, in the opposite direction from his home and the party, is unknown. It is possible that the combination of alcohol and the cold had begun to affect him. While the temperature was in the forties, he had been outside for hours. At around 4 a.m., shortly after he made the phone call, a janitor spotted Patrick pulling on the doors of a locked building. At 5 a.m., Kycia attemped another phone call. The high school buddy who received the call reported hearing nothing on the other end. It was the last time anyone heard from him.

During the search for Patrick, his New Balance sneaker was found floating on the Red River, giving investigators the first clue that he might have gone into the water. His body was found in the river three days after he disppeared, and his death was ruled an accidental drowning. The final autopsy report showed a blood alcohol content of .174. and THC, a chemical in marijuana, in the blood stream. There was no trauma to the body.

Both Patrick and Jacob's case highlight the dangers of cold weather exposure, and the very real risk that it poses for hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when the body's temperature drops below 95 degrees Farenheit. Uncontrolled shivering, joint stiffness and weakened muscles are the first signs that one is becoming hypothermic. As hypothermia progresses, shivering becomes less intense, but other symptoms appear, including: clumsiness, slurred speech or mumbling, stumbling, confusion or difficulty thinking, poor decision making, drowsiness or very low energy and lack of concern about one's condition. The symptoms can occur so gradually that the victim may not even realize what is happening. Eventually, a progressive loss of consciousness, weak pulse, slow, shallow breathing, and irregular heartbeat will occur. (Read an overview of hypothermia.)

Hypothermia can happen during prolonged exposure to cool temperatures, after a few minutes in extremely low temperatures or, surprisingly, in warmer temperatures under the right conditions. Hypothermia can occur on a sunny day, or even in the desert or in an air conditioned room if the right combination of cool temperatures, wetness, and wind are present. Alcohol use speeds up the process.

Here are some tips to help prevent hypothermia:

  • Dress properly for the weather. Wear layers of clean, dry, unrestricting clothing. Wear a hat that covers your ears, coat, gloves, and a face mask for extreme cold.
  • Keep dry. Change clothes as soon as possible if clothes become wet.
  • Limit your time outdoors in very frigid temperatures.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Take extra care if you are diabetic or have poor circulation.
  • Carry a cell phone.
  • Find shelter to stay warm.

First aid for hypothermia:

  • If a person becomes unconscious, get medical help immediately. If cardiac arrest (heart attack) has occurred, have someone call for medical assistance and then apply CPR.
  • Bring the victim indoors.
  • Remove wet clothing, cover the person with blankets (include head, hands, and feet), and share body heat.
  • Do not rub the victim vigorously.
  • Give warm (not hot) beverages. Do not give alcohol.
  • Apply warm, dry compresses (e.g., plastic bag filled with warm water or dryer-warmed towels). Do not apply direct heat (e.g., hot shower, heating pad, hot water bottle),
  • Monitor the victim's breathing. Call 911 if breathing becomes shallow or the victim becomes unconscious.
When administering first aid to someone with hypothermia, the key is to help the person get warm and dry, and to not warm the person up too fast.


Information on hypothermia courtesy of:

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/hypothermia/DS00333
http://www.doh.wa.gov/phepr/generalfactsheets/hypothermia.htm
http://www.essortment.com/warning-signs-hypothermia-62902.html

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