Hypothermia and Frostbite

Hypothermia and FrostbiteIt’s January here in South Dakota and the temperatures aren’t bad recently, about 30 degrees—but it can get below zero very quickly this time of year. The wind and the air temperature can plummet, especially at night, and make it difficult to stay warm… especially if you rely on propane for heating, or wood for heating.

Many of us simply can turn up the heat via a digital dial on the wall and voila – the room temperature climbs until it reaches 75 degrees. Things aren’t always that simple on the reservations around the country. For some, staying warm in the winter is a challenge as costs and the lack of winter fuel such as firewood can make warmth arduous to obtain.

I have visited Elders on the reservation in winter, and I can recall one visit in particular where it was downright freezing inside of the home. The Elder was waiting for a propane delivery. In addition, many of the reservations we serve are very rural and remote. There isn’t an urban infrastructure that makes it easy to have the types of heating many of us enjoy.

Hypothermia & Frostbite - CINFor too many, in my opinion, winter on the reservation can be a cold harsh experience. I can remember as a young boy visiting my grandmother on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the wind could get just horrible and gusty and so very cold. You find ways to stay warm – like putting up blankets and plastic over the windows – but it can still get cold… especially when you are waiting for winter fuel.

This very real danger of hypothermia among people on the reservation when propane and wood are in short supply brings me to another point: What is hypothermia, and how is it different from frostbite?

Well, the Mayo Clinic states that hypothermia is “a medical emergency that occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing a dangerously low body temperature. Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C). Hypothermia occurs as your body temperature passes below 95 F (35 C).”

Severe hypothermia can lead to frostbite, which freezes parts of the body when they are exposed to extremely cold temperatures. In so many of the isolated reservation communities National Relief Charities serves, the temperature can be well below freezing many days throughout the winter and frostbite can occur in a matter of minutes.

Hypothermia & Frostbite - SNRF-Fuel-After the Blizzard 5-Martha Afraid of HawkWhen coupled with the poverty that exists on these reservations, this makes for a perfect storm. Poverty, lack of local heating sources and sub-freezing temps can lead to potentially life threatening consequences. This is why NRC goes to such lengths to ensure winter safety for Elders on reservations, providing:

  • Firewood and winter fuel vouchers for hundreds of Elders on Northern Plains and Southwest reservations
  • Winter emergency boxes with food, water, flashlights, batteries, scarves, hats, gloves, and winter emergency blankets to get Elders through winter storms
  • Weatherization of Elders’ homes by caulking and putting up plastic around doors and windows to keep out the cold and keep in the precious heat
  • Emergency relief when blizzards and other winter weather create risk for Elders

We recommend keeping a close watch on Elders in your community and ensuring their wood, coal or propane does not run low during the winter. And check out these other tips for spotting the signs of frostbite.

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