Monday, January 6, 2014

It Is Cold Outside


I was driving into work this AM. I drive a six year old Toyota Van. The thermometer on my rearview mirror hovered between - 20 and -21 Fahrenheit, but every bank I passed said -24. Before I left home this morning I added a layer of polyester, packed additional headgear, and wore my Sorel boots. This is serious weather even if you are born and raised here and you need to be prepared for the worst. Standing outside for even a few minutes without adequate cover can result in frostbite or worse. The Governor of Minnesota closed down all of the schools today to prevent frostbite injuries and so far there have been no arguments with that decision.  The drive home at night was slightly warmer at -16 degrees.  The sky was so clear it was like being in outer space.  I had to stop for gas and the driver's side door froze open.  I had to hold it shut for about 6 miles until it thawed to the point I could slam it.

Apart from the pragmatics of winter survival, the cold weather also triggers a lot of associative memories - starting with my Sorels. I got these boots originally in 1971 in order to do a Limnology experiment on Lake Superior.



A friend of mine helped me and we went out onto the ice for a about 5 hours and pumped about 200 gallons of lake water through a plankton net to look at the winter plankton population. It was about -5 degrees that day. A few years early he had a case of frostbite after walking about 10 blocks to school wearing nothing but a pea coat.  Like a lot of people in the northern US and Canada, I have found that these boots absolutely protect your feet in subzero weather.

I lived in Duluth, Minnesota for a while and can recall trying to speedskate when it was -10 to -15 degrees. At that temperature, a skate blade cannot compress and liquefy the ice enough to support much glide so the skating motion and its mechanics are seriously disrupted. I was wearing two layers of polyester, a layer of Lycra, and a layer of fiber.  Unlike Sorels - speedskates even with neoprene boot covers don't protect much against the cold.  When I got home I had to lay on top of a radiator under a blanket for 30 minutes in order to warm up. The coldest I have ever been in the winter usually happens after falling through the ice. I can recall walking across a creek and just getting ready to step up onto the far bank when I fell through the ice up to my chest in icy water. The sensation that occurs when that happens is incredible. Your breathing stops for a while followed by rapid gasping as you struggle to get out of the water. That is followed by the desperate run home. In my case it was only about 7 blocks and by the time I got there my clothes were frozen solid.  A friend of mine was skating on Lake Superior and fell through the ice catching himself only by his fingertips. He ran home about the same distance but he had been totally submerged.

My more recent memories are about how the cold has been a factor in my role as a psychiatrist. Most psychiatrists in the Midwest have first-hand experience with the complications of cold weather. We have seen people with frostbite injuries both on burn units and after they have been transferred. We know many of the people who are caught in the endless inpatient unit -> emergency department -> homeless cycle that seems like a permanent artifact of our managed care inpatient and county mental health systems. We have seen the human interest stories that tend to run in the papers when the potentially lethal cold weather hits and the temporary concern about whether or not there are enough shelter beds.

Weather this cold does not allow you to make a lot of mistakes. Sometimes all it takes is the idea that you can run out to the trash can without putting on a jacket and finding that you have locked yourself out of the house. People with memory problems and disorientation can wander off and get lost. People with drinking problems can pass out or just take too long to get home. All it takes is a decision that keeps you out in the subzero weather for minutes too long and you can be in serious trouble.

Potentially lethal cold weather is also an integral part of treatment decisions. You can't really watch people coming in to appointments wearing summer clothing in this weather without doing an assessment for cold weather safety. It becomes part of the discharge decision making. Exactly how stable is the person's housing and how likely are they to keep themselves safe? Can they walk 10 blocks from the hospital to their apartment wearing a sweat suit, basketball shoes, and no hat?  Should they be discharged to the street, even if they want to be?  Should they be discharged if a managed care reviewer says that they should be discharged?  We are generally talking about people who have chronic problems with insight and judgment.  What about people with suicidal ideation? What about the person with chronic drug problems who has a history of drug induced blackouts and waking up on park benches?  What about the person with Alzheimer’s disease who does not have 24 hour supervision?   

How do you make an unbiased decision in that context?  I can say that you don’t.  You don’t because as a psychiatrist you are aware of all of the adverse outcomes.  The continuum of severe frostbite injuries to the hypothermic who could not be resuscitated to those who were found frozen to death.  You don’t want to see that happen to anyone.  You don’t care if somebody wants to call that paternalistic.  You don’t really care if it costs a managed care company or (more likely) a hospital a few bucks.  You have been there yourself and you know you cannot take any chances in subzero weather.  It’s not about a fear of being sued, it’s about concern for a fellow human being.

There are implications for the imminent dangerousness standard that is commonly applied to involuntary holds.  I have argued with enough county attorneys over the years to understand that the standard itself is purely subjective and arbitrary.  No matter how it appears on paper you will hear ten different interpretations from 10 different county attorneys.  There are a few states where a gravely disabled standard applies.  That standard states that a person may have problematic judgment to the point that it potentially impacts their ability to secure adequate food, medical care, or housing.  That standard probably generally applies in these situations, but if you happen to be in a state where there is no statute or the county courts ignore it for convenience or financial reasons it may not be available for use.  

Those are the kinds of things I think about when it gets this cold.  I do get the occasional lighthearted thoughts – making sure I recall the thermodynamic equations that show my car battery dependent on temperature and telling myself that I am going to call Columbia and ask them if they make some type of expedition wear that is warmer than my current Titanium coat.  But mostly – I hope the most vulnerable among us get the help they need and nobody gets injured or killed.  Hopefully someday people will think about the fact that some people have a hard time protecting themselves - irrespective of the air temperature.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Andy Rathbun.  Regions Hospital Sees "Record-Breaking" Number of Frostbite Cases.  St. Paul Pioneer Press.  January 6, 2013.

From the article:

"Most of the people that come in with severe frostbite are "in some way compromised," he said. A small number are physically or mentally disabled, but a majority are people who have consumed too much alcohol or were abusing drugs and didn't realize how cold it was outside, Edmonson said."
             

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