Be careful: Mother Nature serves up temperatures dangerous enough to kill

(WWMT/Photo Illustration MGN Online)

When the temperature drops into those single digit and below-zero ranges, the human body's cardiovascular stress skyrockets.

That's why emergency medical doctors offered a warning for West Michigan residents:

“Stay in, stay warm, and stay alive,” said Dr. William Fales, the medical director for Kalamazoo County EMS.

When cold like what the city experienced Monday hits the area, Fales said, it can kill or seriously injure people who aren’t prepared for the elements.

“We know that when the temperature drops, the cardiovascular stress goes sky high when you’re outside," Fales said. "And that could put just way too much of a stress on the heart and can trigger a cardiac arrest."

The cold claimed three lives in West Michigan over the weekend, Fales said. All of the deaths were related to people shoveling snow.

In one case, the person was using a snowblower, not really working much, but still died.

Fales said that’s because when you’re out in really cold temperatures, your heart works even harder to keep a healthy body temperature. If you have a heart condition, chances are really high your heart can’t take it and could fail.

Emergency room physician Rachel Polinski works at Ascension Borgess Hospital where she said she has seen patients come in with cold-related injuries, namely frostbite, when the skin freezes.

“Layer up,” Polinski said, adding that her best advice is to stay inside at all costs.

Children can more quickly experience frostbite and hypothermia, which is when the body's temperature drops significantly. Hypothermia is a condition that can lead to death.

“They also may not be able to express when they’re getting colder quicker, and they lose heat more quickly,” Polinski said about children.

“Make sure all those extremities are covered,” she said. “Make sure you’re able to get back inside if you’re experiencing any numbness, tingling, you feel like you’re not moving your digits anymore because they feel like they’re swollen ... that’s early signs of frostbite.”

Fales said an early sign of hypothermia is shivering.

“Shivering is an involuntary response to the body’s core temperature starting to drop,” Fales said.

Once shivering starts, he said body temperatures will begin to drop quickly, even faster for children.

Freezing cold can make conditions dangerous for firefighters as well.

Josh Brady is a firefighter with Oshtemo Township. He said water can freeze hose lines, tanks and firefighters.

“It’s a lot of work and, yeah, it’s not fun,” he said.

Brady said departments ensure there is no water on any of their truck’s equipment, nor inside hose and pipes. That way no water is blocked from being used to douse flames.

“We’re gonna be getting wet,” Brady said. “It’s gonna be getting frozen.”

Brady said that’s why departments usually call in support from other departments during fires in really cold weather. That way they can swap equipment if something freezes.

Then there are the firefighters themselves who need to stay dry. Brady said firefighters will rotate when battling a fire in the cold. Between efforts, firefighters can enter a warm bus, usually called specifically to help during extreme cold, to warm up and get dry.

“It’s all kinds of fun,” Brady said.

Dennis Cronen said the cold doesn’t prevent him from enjoying the outdoors.

“I walk, you know, 10-15 miles a day, but I know how to dress for it,” the Parchment man said. “I’ve lived here 72 years so I’m pretty used to it.”

Battle Creek’s Leslie Obrig said avoiding injury in extreme cold shouldn’t be hard to do.

“It doesn’t take that much thought,” Obrig said. “You just have to have some common sense.”

Follow Jorge Rodas on Twitter and on Facebook.

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