Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Airplane in the Hudson and Cold Water Boot Camp

We're all familiar with the US Airways plane that was guided to a safe landing in the Hudson River after taking off from LaGuardia Airport yesterday. The passengers were rescued quickly, but more than a few were reported to have suffered from immersion hypothermia. I was asked by Associated Press to comment on what might have happened had the immersion been prolonged. While answering the question, I mentioned an excellent educational offering about cold water immersion and survival that has recently come into existence.

Cold Water Boot Camp is an educational program and website featuring Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, affectionately (and respectfully) known as "Dr. Popsicle." I just had the opportunity to review the DVD of the same name. It is an excellent tool for teaching and outreach.


MYTH - Most people believe that they don't need a lifejacket "if they are close to shore," or "because they can swim" and that "they can put a lifejacket on in the water if they need it."

FACT - In 90% of drownings, a life jacket was not worn. Research has demonstrated that in cold water, under 59 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of drowning increases by 500%, and many of those drownings occur within 6 feet of safety.

Cold Water Boot Camp takes nine hardy volunteers from Canada and puts them into cold water to learn what happens. Dr. Giesbrecht is the instructor, and his style is highly informative and entertaining. The DVD contains a full 30 minute program as well as a 10 minute classroom version, as well as some public service announcements.

As it was explained to me, Cold Water Boot Camp was created to help change the traditional thinking about accidental immersion into cold water. I highly recommend it for student groups, outdoor groups, or for any individual interested in personal safety related to cold water, in educating others about the same. This is a tremendous safety initiative.

For the purpose of understanding a few principles of what happens to people who are immersed in cold water, be advised that a sudden plunge into cold water causes the victim to hyperventilate, which may lead to confusion, muscle spasm, and loss of consciousness. The cold water rapidly cools muscles and the victim loses the ability to swim or tread water. Muscles and nerves may become ineffective within 10 minutes. Over the ensuing hour, shivering occurs and then ceases. Anyone pulled from cold water should be presumed to be hypothermic. In terms of survival, the aphorism is that when a person is plunged into very cold water (32° F or 0° C), he or she has 1 minute to control breathing (e.g., to stop hyperventilating from the “gasp reflex”), 10 minutes of purposeful movement before the muscles are numb and not responsive, one hour before hypothermia leads to unconsciousness, and two hours until profound hypothermia causes death.

Kudos to the pilot of the airplane, the passengers for their orderly behavior in the face of a potential disaster, and to all the rescuers and medical personnel who assisted the victims.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.