How Hypothermia Can Save Lives on (Really) Rare Occasions

The cold is one of humanity’s oldest adversaries, but as we have developed better and more effective clothing – we have reached a point where we are no longer as vulnerable to exposure as our ancestors once were. But even with the advantages of modern clothing, the cold still kills people every year. Lost hunters and hikers, the homeless, the poor and the unlucky succumb to exposure from cold temperatures each winter. But there is one weird situation where hypothermia can be helpful, and even save a life which would have otherwise been lost. This odd chain of events is a near-drowning in cold water. Here’s what happens.

Most winters, you’ll see familiar looking headlines in areas with treacherous ice. An ice skater breaks through a frozen pond and drowns, a diver pulls their lifeless body to the surface and sometime later the victim is revived at a nearby hospital. Stranger than fiction, intensely cold water can place a drowning victim into the “mammalian diving response,” preventing brain damage and reducing the body’s need for oxygen. This cold immersion slows the heartbeat, halts respiration and redistributes blood toward the organs that need it most - the heart, lungs and brain. It’s essentially a mini-hibernation.

The current survival record for near-drowning under these conditions is 62 minutes under water. This unbelievable story took place in 1986 near Salt Lake City, Utah. Two-year-old Michelle Funk was playing near a creek with her brother, when she fell into the icy water and sank. Rescuers were on the scene in eight minutes, but they were unable to locate the girl initially. A full 62 minutes later she was found, with no heartbeat, dilated pupils and a core temperature of 70 F. After being rushed to a local medical center, and treatment with a blood rewarming machine, the little girl opened her eyes once her body temperature reached 91 F. After several weeks of therapy and care in the hospital, the little girl miraculously went home and suffered no long term effects from her death-defying ordeal. Certainly, this is a rare and extreme case – but it does illustrate a point very clearly. In cold water drowning, the victim should never be considered dead until the body has been rewarmed and is still unresponsive to resuscitation.

Have you survived a cold water immersion or near-drowning? Please share your story by leaving us a comment.