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A chilling cure: Facing killer heat, ERs use body bags to save lives

JoNel Aleccia, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Weather News

As a deadly heat wave scorched the Pacific Northwest in June, overwhelming hospital emergency rooms in a region unaccustomed to triple-digit temperatures, doctors resorted to a grim but practical tool to save lives: human body bags filled with ice and water.

Officials at hospitals in Seattle and Renton, Washington, said that as more people arrived experiencing potentially fatal heatstroke, and with cooling catheters and even ice packs in short supply, they used the novel treatment to quickly immerse and cool several elderly people.

Zipping heatstroke patients into ice-filled body bags worked so well it could become a go-to treatment in a world increasingly altered by climate change, said Dr. Alex St. John, an emergency physician at UW Medicine’s Harborview Medical Center.

“I have a feeling that we’re looking at many more days of extreme heat in the future, and this is likely to become more common,” he said.

Despite the macabre connotation of body bags, using them is a cheap, convenient and scalable way to treat patients in mass casualty emergencies caused by excessive heat, said Dr. Grant Lipman, a Stanford University professor of emergency medicine. He co-authored a pioneering case study documenting the use for heatstroke of what doctors call “human remains pouches.”

“When people are this sick, you’ve got to cool them down fast,” Lipman said.

 

Heatstroke is the most dangerous type of heat illness, a medical emergency that leads to death in up to a third of hospitalized patients. It occurs when the body overheats, either because of exertion in high temperatures or because of prolonged exposure to heat with no relief. The core body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, which can damage the brain and other organs.

Heatstroke can be particularly dangerous for children and older people, whose bodies don’t regulate temperature well. Also, elderly people may take medications that impair their ability to tolerate high temperatures.

Patients typically would be treated with strategically placed ice packs or misted with water and placed in front of huge fans. Some emergency room staffers immerse patients in large tubs of water or insert cooling catheters into the body’s large veins.

During emergencies, however, equipment, ice and time may all be in short supply.

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