Today, we’re continuing with Ramona Richard’s two part piece on her personal experience with hypothermia. Her details are critical for getting the symptoms right.
Welcome back, Romona!
I’ve been soggy drunk, and I’ve had serious sugar lows. Those two experiences are the only ones I know that can compare to the sensation of having your body and brain stop talking to each other, then try to shut down completely. I wanted to sleep, but the divemasters wouldn’t let me. When I could finally walk without stumbling, they took me and my dive bag into the hold and told me to strip, dry off, and get into dry clothes. They turned their backs but wouldn’t leave me. Afterwards, they wrapped me in blankets head-to-toe and made me drink a lot of room temperature water.
The cold didn’t leave immediately. It lived on, deep in my muscles, for several hours, re-emerging ever so often in a chill and shudder. An unexpected cramp. I found that even walking carried a tinge of fear, as if the cold would return at any minute.
People who’ve never been through this have said to me, “Oh, you were just really cold.” No. I wasn’t just really cold. I felt deadened, frozen from the inside, helpless, non-functional, and terrified.
And one thing no one warned me about was the after effects. I don’t even know if this is medically proven, but it was my experience, and it might make for a good story element. I remain hypersensitive to cold, as if the hypothermia had messed up my internal thermostat. At times when I should have been “just cold,” I’ll become chilled and shaky, unable to regenerate my own warmth. Sometimes, at night, I’ll wake up shivering, and no pile of quilts is enough to stop the shaking.
One of the most memorable reoccurrence was in Gatlinburg, which is in the mountains of east Tennessee. I’d worn shorts during the warmth of the day. Then a friend and I had dinner, during which I’d drunk ice water. When we came out, the air temp had dropped from the 70s into the 40s, and within a few minutes, that familiar chill sank into my muscles. I started shivering and I couldn’t get warm. I grew angry and weak, and the walk back to our hotel became a series of short stops at shops, hotel lobbies, and bars while I warmed up enough for the next few yards.
Since that time, I watch the weather like a hawk, and I ALWAYS have blankets and water in my car, even in the summer. It changed other things for me as well. I dislike being hot, and had always preferred cold weather to warm (which is why I was snow camping). Now, I’m wary of it.
So why did I become hypothermic on one dive and not on the previous one? I believe it happened mainly because I was stupid. I drank too much alcohol the night before, slept little, and downed too many Sudafed, those little red pills my buddies on the boat called “diver’s candy.” All of it acted to dehydrate me – a prime set-up for hypothermia. Between that and the way water sucks heat out of your body, I became a self-induced victim.
Now, when I wake up shivering or feel that internal chill when I’m out, I know the solution is warm or room temperature water.
As a writer, I’ll someday work this into a plot. Mild hypothermia is perfect for slowing down your characters, without making them sick or injured. It’s great for making one character protective of the other, and a marvelous reason a hero and heroine must seek shelter together, yet be ready to go the next day.
I’ve listed some links below that go into more detail about the different causes and levels of hypothermia. My case was mild—no frost bite, organ damage, or unconsciousness—because Rob’s brain kept working when my started to falter. To this day, I try not to think about what would have happened had I been deeper, or he’d been farther away…although that does put my romantic suspense brain into high gear…
Ramona Richards, fiction editor for Abingdon Press, started making stuff up at three, writing it down at seven, and selling it at eighteen. She’s been annoying editors ever since, which is probably why she became one. She’s edited more than 350 publications, including novels, CD-ROMs, magazines, non-fiction, children’s books, Bibles, and study guides. Ramona has worked with such publishers as Thomas Nelson, Barbour, Howard, Harlequin, Ideals, and many others.