After 7 hours and 37 minutes in water between 9 and 11 Celsius (C) and an air temperature that went from 26 to 13C I had my first real experience with hypothermia. I had wondered for some time at what point I would shiver. I now know!
When I look back at the swim, when my body failed, it was really in the last hour or two. It was then that the air temperature dropped by over 10 degrees and the wind blew close to 20 kilometres (km) an hour. My body had been in a state of cold since entering the water early that afternoon and was managing well, but when the conditions changed, my body rebelled.
The last 5 minutes of my swim were dramatic. I was losing my ability to think through simple tasks such as opening my tea thermos and following the boat. I was developing claw hands with my fingers stiffening and limited mobility, and my legs had gone ghost white.
These were all signs of hypothermia that my crew knew to watch for and that happened within the last 30 minutes of my swim. The definitive sign of hypothermia on that day though, was shivering; something I knew I could not recover from in the water, and something I had never experienced before.
Once I was safely aboard Gordon’s sailboat my crew moved quickly to treat me for hypothermia. There is a 1 degree core temperature drop once you exit the water. I needed to warm quickly.
I sat down in a corner of the cockpit and was dried off and covered with towels and blankets. Melissa sat beside me and assessing my condition. My face went blue as my blood pressure dropped.
Within minutes of being aboard the boat I felt nauseous. I had ingested quite a bit of salt water. But was so bundled in blankets that I could not lean over the deck to be sick. I asked for a bucket. I could hear rattling coming from the galley below and then a loud “no” from one of my crew when a small bowl popped up through the hatch. A bit more rattling and then a pot of veggie stew MJ had prepared for the crew made its way to the cockpit. Gordon quickly grabbed a hold of the pot emptying its contents over board and – opps – into the wind. What remained of the stew was now on him!
Gordon passed the pot along and I was able to contain what my belly did not want to the pot that was once used for a beautiful crew stew. I was sick 4 times, with very little break between each turn at filling the pot. Melissa, bless her, remained beside me, tending to me the entire time.
Once I was done the pot was returned to Gordon emptied its contents over board into the wind again – opps. I asked my crew to bring me down to the berth where I could lay down and continue with the rewarming process.
I was soon stripped down and curled up under as many blankets as were on the boat. My niece Kelly sat beside me and my partner Ray curled himself around me as I shivered violently for 2 and a half hours. I was not tired from the swim when I exited the water, but I quickly became exhausted from the shivering. I remember calling to Ray, asking him to make it stop. I moaned and groaned and then willed my body to stop, but within seconds it would start again, with even more intensity then before. My body had taken control and was doing for me what needed to be done.
We docked in Victoria just after 11:00 pm. The shivering had finally stopped. My friend Charla drove Ray and I home.
Recovering from Juan de Fuca has taken me several months. Throughout the remainder of August and most of September I was barely able to swim and I became quite depressed – not because I did not make it, but because of the exhaustion, and then the lack of exercise. I wondered if I would be able to ever swim again. While at work I often closed my office unable to fightback tears. After work I would go home and lay in bed curled up under a blanket. I was worried enough about myself that I asked Ray to keep an eye on me making sure that I didn’t constantly retreat our bedroom. I asked that he make sure I went out for walks, visited friends, and went to the pool, even if for 20 minute swims – and he did.
In November I went to see two friends; one a homeopathic doctor (Lisa Rutherford) and the other a naturopathic doctor (Jane Rohon O’Halloran). I started on a supplement regime that helped heal my body. I was able to swim more, lift weights again, and began canoeing. By the end of the month I completed my first 10 kilometre swim since August and was well on my way to 30km weeks.
The human body is remarkable and resilient. I have learned more than I ever could have hoped for from by the swim and my recovery – and I look forward to what lay ahead.