COLBERT: With heat stroke, know the symptoms and save lives

August 13, 2019

The Texas summer has arrived, when our air conditioners run nonstop to help us survive the heat — in some cases, quite literally.

Temperatures of 90 degrees and above, combined with high humidity, can push the heat index quickly to more than 100 degrees, posing the potential for heat-related illness, heat stroke or even death.

We can’t completely escape the heat in southeast Texas, but we can avoid becoming a statistic of people who die from heat stroke.

When a person experiences heat-related illness, their body becomes unable to properly cool, resulting in a rapid rise in body temperature. That could lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include muscle cramping, fatigue, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness or fainting. Heat stroke is much more severe and life-threatening.

Symptoms include a body temperature higher than 104, rapid, strong pulse, throbbing headache, nausea and dizziness, confusion or unconsciousness.

Elevated body temperature can damage the brain or other vital organs and may lead to multiple organ system failure or even death. Seniors, those with chronic conditions, and children are more susceptible, but people of any age can be affected.

I pray that parents or young people reading this will be more aware of the symptoms of heat stroke or heat exhaustion and know how to avoid it.

Our family was impacted by heat stroke last year. Our son, David Colbert IV — healthy, athletic, 31 years old — suffered a severe heat stroke while running a race in Singapore on April 26, 2018. He was found wandering after the race, so confused he didn’t know who he was.

We don’t know how long he went without treatment, but by the time he arrived at the emergency room, his body temperature was over 104.

He had experienced rhabdomyolysis, or breakdown of muscle tissue, and multiple organ failure. It is a miracle he didn’t die in the emergency room. His liver and kidneys were so damaged that he would have needed a double transplant.
In the last five and a half months of his life, he endured numerous setbacks and problems.

To say that he suffered is an understatement. Although we were able to transfer him to one of our excellent hospitals in Houston, on Oct. 12 he succumbed to the effects of liver and kidney failure — all resulting from heat stroke.

I pray that parents or young people reading this will be more aware of the symptoms of heat stroke or heat exhaustion and know how to avoid it. Air-conditioning is one of the number one protective factors. A fan isn’t enough.

If you know someone who is living in a home without an air conditioner, or who can’t afford to pay for the electricity to cool their homes, connect them to a local resource by calling the 2-1-1 Texas/United Way HELPLINE.

This experience makes me even more passionate about Catholic Charities’ ability to continue providing utilities assistance to low-income seniors and other people in need. It’s heartbreaking that so many people in poverty are forced to make painful decisions about what they can afford each month: buy food or have air conditioning in August?

Other ways to prevent heat exhaustion or heat stroke are to drink fluids, avoid alcohol, wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing when exercising and avoiding strenuous exercise during the hottest parts of the day. Heat stroke is one of the leading causes of deaths of young athletes, so coaches and schools must take precautions to protect their team members as they prepare for football, track or other outside sports.

If you are with someone who exhibits the symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. In the meantime, move the person to a cool or shaded place, remove unnecessary clothing, cool the victim with cold water, cold towels or even ice packed around their body and under their arms. Monitor their breathing and be ready to give CPR if necessary until the EMTs arrive.

I am grateful to the people who found David after the race and got him medical treatment. I am grateful to the people who worked so hard to save his life. I wish he had known more about how to prevent heat stroke, but if we can make even one person more aware of how to prevent heat stroke and save even one life, then I know David’s death is not in vain.

Editor's note: For more information on the hazards of extreme heat conditions, click here.

Cynthia N. Colbert, MSW, is the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.