Nathan Wilson | Reporter
With temperatures projected to reach 100 degrees over the weekend, the heat is on everyone’s mind. Some in Natchitoches are warning others to be mindful of the heat anyway because the consequences of overheating can be dangerous.
John Robertson has firsthand experience seeing the effects of extreme heat. “When I was in the Navy, I spent a lot of time in the Middle East,” he says. “I’ve seen people get dehydrated and pass out. That sun is a murderer over there.”
Now retired, Robertson’s most recent experience with heat stress occurred as he volunteered during a drive-through food distribution on a hot morning earlier this month. “I got there about 7:30 (a.m.) and the line of cars was going both ways and I said, ‘Hey I need to hit the ground running.” he says. “A couple times one of the nurses there said, ‘hey, you need to take a break and I said, oh I’ll be alright.’” He felt the importance of his work outweighed his need to rest. “I just kept going straight through because I wanted to get the people served,” he says.
By mid-morning, Robertson hadn’t slowed long enough to drink any water, let alone cool off. “I knew I was sweating a lot because I was out there running between cars.” he says. “Right around 10:15 or 10:20, I kind of felt a little light-headed, so I said I’m going to go in and sit down and get a drink of water.” As he sat down, another volunteer began talking to him and expressed concern. “One of my krewe members from the Krewe of Excellence said you don’t look right,” he explained. “She gave me a doughnut, and she asked me if I had anything to eat that day and I said no, but I did drink some water. It just went downhill from there.”
Robertson never lost consciousness, but he gradually became less responsive during the conversation. “She was asking me questions and I couldn’t answer, so she really knew something was wrong,” he recalls. “I thought I was answering and she said the only thing you would say was, don’t call 911. Don’t tell my mother,” he says. “Everything else she was trying to ask me, she said it looked like I was trying to answer but I wasn’t answering.”
Suddenly unsure if he could support himself, Robertson’s friends helped him lie on his back and cool off. “I wasn’t passing out. I just felt really weak, and I needed to lay down, and the nurse had me elevate my feet,” he recounts. (She) put some cold, frozen corn on my neck,” he says. “The nurse there said my lips had turned white and I was turning pale. I can’t turn pale, (but) that’s what she said. I couldn’t see it.”
“I’ve been doing this four years now, and I’ve never had anything happen,”
Robertson says of the incident. “The thing is almost like a silent killer. You don’t know it until it’s almost upon you.” He describes what happened next. “They called 911. I tried to tell them not to, but they did anyway, which is a good thing,” says Robertson. “My vital signs were all fine. They just said, ‘you need to take it easy for a while. I was fine. I got a ride home,” he explains. “The people from the fire department and the ambulance department; they were outstanding.”
Robertson’s experience with heat stress was relatively mild, but poor hydration and prolonged exposure to heat can damage multiple organs including the heart, kidneys and brain and even lead to death. It’s important to treat every case of heat stress as an emergency by calling 911 and taking steps to lower the victim’s temperature as quickly as possible.
Natchitoches Fire Chief John Wynn describes how his office responds to calls involving heat stress. “Heat stress and heat exhaustion is pretty common, especially this time of year,” he says. “With these hundred degree temperatures that we’re starting to see, it’s really easy to get overworked and over stressed out in the field.”
Wynn believes the best treatment for heat stress is preventative. “Water is the best thing to help prevent heat exhaustion and heat stress,” says Wynn. “Drink small amounts all day long.” He suggests limiting most beverages other than water. “If you do drink a sports drink, make sure you drink more water,” he says. He offers a reason. “Some of these sports drinks are supplemented with sugar, and sometimes when you get overheated the sugar in the stomach causes an upset stomach and can cause you further dehydration.” He also recommends abstaining from other beverages. “No alcohol, no caffeinated drinks during this hot time,” he says.
Wynn indicates there are warning signs to look out for. “The heat’s hard on everybody as it is, but getting dizzy, profuse sweating, you know you’re starting to work and over-exert yourself, and you want to work on cooling yourself down,” he says. “At some point you may not be producing any sweat. That’s a serious sign right there.”
The danger of heat stress is that it will progress, which can cause permanent disability or even death. “It is very dangerous. The earlier, the better that you catch it,” says Wynn. “If you don’t catch it, it can lead into heat stroke and it could be very bad for the person.” He also indicates sufferers are more susceptible to future heat stress. “Somebody who goes into heat exhaustion is prone to have a heat injury or heat illness a lot easier than before, especially a week or so after.”
Wynn makes a recommendation when someone is suspected of suffering from heat stress. “If you think somebody is having real trouble, go ahead and call 911. Get that phone call initiated because they may be at a point where you may not be able to cool them down the way they need,” he says. “They may not be able to get the fluids the way they need them, where a medical facility or someone with medical training can,” he says. He offers advice on how a bystander can help until first responders arrive. “You can lay them down and elevate their feet, get them out of the heat, get them under some shade somewhere where they can get some cool water and some cool air blowing on them,” he says.
Since firefighters work in dangerously hot environments, Wynn describes the precautions his staff takes. “We want them to start hydrating before work,” he says. Each truck is also equipped with water coolers, fans and other cooling equipment. “We can set up little rehab areas for them, especially when they’re fighting fires this time of year, but it’s important that they get out and cool off.” he says. “One of the first things they do when they come out (of a fire); they go straight over to that water cooler and they start drinking water, and they start shedding that fire protective equipment and cooling off.”
Robertson learned from his experience and shared advice he originally learned during his military service including staying hydrated, taking breaks and wearing a hat to protect from the sun. He also emphasized another lesson based on his recent experience. “Actually listen to what other people that are around you are telling you. If somebody says call 911 they have a reason to suspect something,” he says. “Tan’Keia Palmer, she works for the School Board. If she hadn’t insisted on calling 911 and having me sit there, I probably would have gone back out(side),” he adds. “I have to thank her so much.”
Nathan Wilson | Reporter