Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside!

I hate winter! SERIOUSLY!! I mean, this "global warming" thing has got to STOP if it means I keep waking up to 16° F mornings with highs in the 30s...which is exactly what's been happening for the last several weeks. Ordinarily, my koi pond may freeze once in a freak cold snap each year, but it's been frozen over for days! I know that to those of you reading this from places where it gets "really cold", you're probably thinking I'm a wimp, but this just isn't natural for Georgia, & I can't handle this cold! No, I mean I REALLY can't handle it.

As a quadriplegic, my body doesn't regulate it's temperature properly. The technical term is poikilothermic, which means that my body temperature varies with that of the environment. Merriam-Webster defines it as "the state of being cold-blooded" (& no, I'm not referring to my personality, so no wise cracks). This term usually describes all animals except birds & mammals, so I am using it a bit loosely, but it's the best description of what I deal with.

You see, in most people, the nerves that run throughout their bodies send signals through the spinal cord to the brain that let it know if the body is hot or cold (above or below 98.6°F on average). If it's hot, the brain sends signals through the spinal cord telling the body to sweat. The moisture on the skin in turn cools the body. When it's cold, the brain sends those signals telling the body to shiver & for the blood vessels to constrict, raising blood pressure & warming the body.

Because of my spinal cord injury, my cord is blocked, preventing messages from passing back & forth (think: outage on a phone line...the body is making the call & the brain is making the call, but neither one can get through.) This causes several problems:
  1. I don't sweat.
  2. I don't shiver.
  3. I don't move around much.
  4. I can't tell when I'm getting too hot or too cold until it's too late.
  5. Additionally, I happen to have very low blood pressure normally - 80/50 on average - & a lower normal body temperature - 97°.
So here's the scenario: In the summer, if I don't pay careful attention to the outside temperature & humidity, I can get over heated. My body won't sweat, so my temperature just keeps rising. I've measured it as high as 104°F, but I can usually tell I'm in trouble by the time it hits 101° or 102°. I get stuffy headed, miserable, splotches on my skin...the usual signs of fever. At that point, all I can do is get in air conditioning, put cold cloths or ice on my neck & thighs & drink lots of cold water. This little problem has sent me to the emergency room a couple of times, but after 23 years, I'm pretty in-tune with my body & manage to avoid danger. How? If I'm outside, I dress in thin, sleeveless clothes, I stay in the shade, use a misty sprayer on my skin (think: artificial sweat), drink ice water, use a "cool wrap" on my neck, etc. And at the first sign of over-heating, I go inside. I have had to use some "at home" treatment a few times, but I haven't been the the ER for this since I left my high school reunion in an ambulance in June, 2000 (Yeah. What an exit.)

The winter is different (read: worse). When it's cold, my true "lizard & snake" connection really shows. When I get hot, I feel uncomfortable, but when I get cold, I'm downright MISERABLE!! Because I can't move around much & I have low blood pressure, I get cold VERY easily. I can feel when I'm cold, too...mostly in my shoulders, ears & face since I have normal sensation there. Because of this, I tend to hunch-up my shoulders a lot in lieu of shivering, which causes neck & shoulder pain leading to headaches. If I'm not careful, I can go from "just cold" to "borderline hypothermia" fairly quickly.

I've only had one recorded "medical emergency" from my being cold. It occurred in February, 1987, when I was still at Shepherd Center. It was about 2 am & I was awakened from a "sound sleep" (read: semi-consciousness) by several nurses working feverishly (pardon the pun) to raise my temperature. They had been doing their rounds checking vitals & couldn't get my temperature to register...& couldn't wake me. I came to as they were piling warmed blankets on me, putting a hat on my head & trying to get me to drink hot chocolate. I did, of course, eventually warm up, but they were pretty concerned for awhile. Since then, when I have gotten really cold, I've just repeated their treatment at home - piled on blankets & hats, drunk warm liquids & (my trick) turned a hot hairdryer on my head, neck & shoulders. Mostly, though, I try to avoid getting that cold in the first place.

Unfortunately, it is far more difficult getting me warm when I'm cold than cooling me down when I'm hot. I live most of the winter in sweatshirts & blankets. I don't go out anywhere very often - I'm pretty much a shut-in in the winter. We have a forced-air gas furnace in our home that I keep set between 78° - 82° during the day & around 71° at night. (My husband, Jerry, lives in shorts when home, & my friends & family all know to wear layers that they can peel off when visiting.) I drink a lot of hot tea & hot water. I sleep with a towel on my head (like the nightcaps people used to wear). And none of these things really keep me warm.

The one thing that never fails to get & keep me warm is sunshine. "Hello, my name is Sandra & I am a sunshine-oholic!" If I am cold, put me in a south-facing window on a clear day & I am THRILLED!! Works EVERY time! The minute I feel that bright sunshine bathing me in it's warmth, I just feel better all over. My muscles relax, my mood improves & I get happy. I get comfortable. I get...well, warm. Like a flower, I am literally drawn to the sun. And, like a lizard or a snake, I bask in it's warmth as a means of survival. The sun is such a vital part of my health, welfare & survival that when we bought the lot to build our house, we specifically looked for one with no trees & with the back yard facing south. We even got a variance from the county based on a letter from my doctor so that we could position the house perfectly for me to get the most sun exposure in my conservatory-style (glass roof) sunroom. My desk, where I currently sit typing this blog, sits sideways beside a 6o" south-facing window under a heater vent. And when the sun shines in, no matter that it's 26° outside. I sit comfortably in 85° - 90° sunny warmth.

So, yes, I hate winter, but with good reason. But as always, I look at the bright spot. The first day of winter - the shortest day of the year - was nearly a month ago. That means the days are getting longer, spring is on it's way & warm days with it. Lord, please send it quickly!