The Midwest is expected to see record-breaking cold temperatures this week. Here's what happens to your body in the extreme cold, and how hospitals prepared to help patients in these dangerously low temperatures.
Polar vortex moves through the US
A polar vortex is moving through the United States this week, hitting record-low temperatures in some areas. According to the Wall Street Journal, the vortex is "a temporary shift of an extremely cold air mass that normally blankets the Arctic region." The National Weather Service (NWS) said the low temperatures likely will last into Thursday.
According to The Hill, the polar vortex will make some areas of the United States colder than Antarctica and Mount Everest. For example, the temperature in Chicago reached 21 degrees below zero Wednesday night, the Chicago Tribune reports. Meteorologists has predicted wind chills as low as 44 degrees below zero. Those temperatures placed Chicago among the coldest places in the world, The Hill reports. The South Pole on Wednesday was expected to see a high of negative four degrees, while temperatures in Barrow, Alaska, and Zuckerberg Station, Greenland, were expected to reach highs of seven below zero and 11 below zero, respectively.
Chris Foltz, a meteorologist with NWS, said, "We haven't seen temperatures like this in 20 years," adding, "When you get wind chills of 50 below it's life threatening."
What happens to your body in the extreme cold?
Jeff Schaider, chair of emergency medicine at Cook County Health in Chicago, in an interview with NPR explained that there are two main things that can happen to the body in extreme cold: frostbite and hypothermia.
"I've seen patients develop frostbite within an approximate 10 to 15 minutes after being exposed to these extreme temperatures," Schaider said, explaining, "So people would actually get outside, you know, walk down the street for about 10 minutes or so and develop frostbite in the back of their ears by not wearing a hat." Schaider said it might seem like "common sense," but it's important that people "cover their extremities to not be exposed to these extreme temperatures."
Schaider explained that hypothermia occurs when the body's "temperature drops as a result of being exposed to the cold more prolonged." He said, "Initially when you're exposed to the cold you'll obviously shiver and try to warm your body up. … But as your body gets colder and colder, your response to the cold actually becomes less and less. You'll stop shivering then your body temperature will start dropping at a more rapid rate. And if you think about your body as I guess an engine, as it gets colder it moves slower. Your mind thinks slower. Your heart moves slower."
Eventually, Schaider said, you'll become confused and "[y]ou can go into a coma. And your heart would go slower. Your blood pressure will drop." He said, "People could die from the cold in these types of circumstances."
To avoid both frostbite and hypothermia, Schaider advises people to always bring extra clothes, even if they think they won't be out in the cold. "If you're in the car, bring additional clothes, bring a blanket, bring an extra hat, extra gloves just in case something happens to your car," he said.
Schaider also warns that people should be careful when drinking alcohol during such cold weather. "People that go out and drink might walk outside because they don't feel the effects of the cold that much when they're intoxicated. And then in these types of situation[s] they might be exposed to the cold for a long period of time and their body temperature would begin to drop."
How hospitals are dealing with the extreme temperatures
Hospitals in regions affected by the polar vortex have been preparing to handle an influx in patients.
HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Wisconsin, for example, is offering a valet service for patients to get to the hospital. James Haskins, one of the valet drivers, said the hospital "expect[s] more people to come out in the cold, and that's why we do valet, because we figure we're doing a good service to the people that don't want to park their cars out in the cold."
Brian Charlier, president and CEO of HSHS St. Vincent and St. Mary's Hospitals, said his hospitals also are providing rooms for employees who wish to remain at the facilities. "We had a number of colleagues stay over during the snow storm because they couldn't get home safely, so we always provide that … with the cold weather, if they feel safer staying here, we allow them to do so," he said.
Meanwhile, Bellin Health Systems, also in Wisconsin, is running extra bus services to transport patients to the hospital and back to their cars, according to Laura Hieb, the hospital's CNO. "We are also offering jump assistance; sometimes in cold weather it's difficult for the cars to start, so we want to be sure that our employees don't have to wait out in the cold," she said.
Over in Illinois, Loyola University Medical Center was speeding up discharges to help patients get home before the cold weather began, while Mount Sinai Hospital and Holy Cross Hospital, both in Chicago, have turned their EDs into warming centers for community members, offering coffee and hot chocolate at no cost.
Other health systems in Illinois are collecting winter clothing to give to patients who do not have adequate attire for the weather and asking patients to reschedule nonemergency appointments so they do not have to venture out in the cold (Shapiro, NPR, 1/29; Belkin, Wall Street Journal, 1/30; Folley, The Hill, 1/29; Rege, Becker's Hospital Review, 1/30; Morales, WBAY, 1/29; Rosenberg-Douglas/Wolfe, Chicago Tribune, 1/31).
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