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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Column: Avoid the “umbles”

The weather I just played two softball games in was described variously as light ice pellets (sleet), “wintery mix,” and heavy snow fog with a chance of an old favorite—thundersnow. The tricky leprechaun of weather once again eluded us, but we weren’t too upset as even our feelings were numb by that point.

When it is 33 degrees and pelleting, and you are attempting to hit a fast-moving object with an aluminum bat, you contemplate certain things about mortality—like how imminent it is.

I’m a Minnesotan, and naturally cool, which means that in high school I didn’t take the bus and instead hiked a quarter mile through snow in converses with my coat unbuttoned. You know, because the boys liked it. Like all parents, mine were convinced this would kill me.

Were I on the verge of death, the first signs that I was developing hypothermia are described as the “umbles”: stumbles, mumbles, fumbles and grumbles, which is exactly what I sounded like on my 7 a.m. hike.

To shake my umbles out, I should have been wearing warm, dry clothes in loose layers to trap air. I also shouldn’t have gotten wasted before homeroom, as alcohol causes peripheral blood vessel dilation.

Normally in the cold, your peripheral blood vessels constrict, so that your blood doesn’t flow to places it is going to get chilly, like your fingers or toes. This keeps your blood nice and warm so your internal temperature doesn’t drop.

This is something anyone living in Iowa is familiar with—when blood quits flowing to your peripheral blood vessels (like those in your hands) the skin above them goes numb. Numbness is not conducive to playing softball, but it does protect you from hypothermia.

If you’re at risk for hypothermia, a warm room sounds like a good idea. But bringing a truly hypothermic person into a really hot room will kill them dead. Similar to booze, being suddenly warm will make the peripheral blood vessels dilate, and if they go from un-dilated to really dilated your blood pressure will drop like a rock. And if it does that, not enough blood gets to your heart, which means it can’t effectively circulate blood throughout your body. Obviously not good.

But neither is freezing off your hands or feet. A little numbness from lack of blood flow keeps your core temperature up, but if your extremities are being seriously deprived of blood they can actually freeze. And then your fingers turn black and fall off.

Fortunately, there are an awful lot of warning signs that this is going to occur, starting from pain and whiteness, moving to redness and swelling, and finally to your skin being waxy and hard. When it gets to the waxy hard stage it has to be warmed up quickly or oxygen deprivation from the lack of blood will cause permanent nerve damage.

Nerve damage is convenient in the sense that literally freezing your fingers off would probably hurt if you could feel it. But one of the many downsides is that you don’t notice when you cut your hands, and they get horribly infected, and you get gangrene.

Gangrene, and I say this after having given it careful consideration, might be the scariest-looking aliment I have ever written about. It basically means that your already abused flesh is rotting off. This is unsightly—avoid it.

While I started off this column to complain about having to be outside and play softball in the cold, I am finishing it grateful my fingers aren’t black and falling off. I guess fingers are one of those things you just didn’t know how much they meant to you until they’re gone.

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