Problems and complications with cold-water rescue

Wilderness Environ Med. 2006 Spring;17(1):26-30. doi: 10.1580/pr01-05.1.


A case description is presented of a 9-member rowing team whose scull swamped on a small lake in Victoria, Canada, because of a sudden winter storm, which immersed them in 4 degrees C water for 50 minutes until a small rescue boat found them in darkness. Another 13 minutes of cold exposure in 6.7 degrees C air occurred during boat transport to waiting ambulance paramedics. Two rowers died, one from severe hypothermia and the other from drowning as a consequence of cold incapacitation and hypothermia. The 2 coldest rowers, who were transported 8 km to a major hospital, arrived with rectal temperatures of 23.4 degrees C and 25 degrees C; the first was asystolic and the second was unconscious and in sinus bradycardia. Analysis of all the circumstances of this incident provided an opportunity to observe a continuum of responses in a heterogeneous group of rowers at risk of severe hypothermia. Several practical lessons concerning cold-water survival, rescue, and treatment can be learned. The effects of low body mass were associated with greater cooling rate. Diminished neuromuscular performance in the periphery appeared to be independent of body mass. Rough handling during moving of patients with marked hypothermia introduces the risk of producing ventricular fibrillation or cardiac arrest. Unconscious, nonshivering hypothermia victims who are rescued and insulated from cold could have a further afterdrop of 3 degrees C to 4 degrees C. During transport to a hospital, the use of heating devices concentrating on core regions may increase the chance of successful treatment in the hospital. Cardiopulmonary bypass may be indicated for severely hypothermic patients in asystole.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Body Temperature / physiology*
  • Cold Temperature*
  • Fatal Outcome
  • Female
  • Heart Arrest / etiology
  • Heart Arrest / therapy
  • Humans
  • Hypothermia / therapy*
  • Male
  • Near Drowning / therapy
  • Prognosis
  • Rescue Work / methods*
  • Rewarming / methods*
  • Victoria