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Sub-Zero Temperatures Keeping Emergency Docs 'Extremely Busy'

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
January 06, 2018
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Above: After two weeks of temperatures hovering in single digits, ice has formed all the way across the Youghiogheny River at McKeesport. A warming trend is expected this week. (Almanac photo)

As temperatures rise above freezing for the first time in two weeks, doctors, nurses and support staff at UPMC McKeesport hospital should receive a slight respite.

Between the bitter cold and the flu season "we've been extremely busy," says Dr. Rani Kumar, who chairs the hospital's emergency department. "We're bursting at the seams sometimes, but we're here to help."

According to the National Weather Service, average temperatures in the Mon-Yough area in December were about 4 degrees below normal. As of this weekend, the last time the temperature in the McKeesport region went above freezing was Dec. 25, when the high recorded at Allegheny County Airport was 33 degrees.

Temperatures dropped below zero for four of the first six days of 2018, according to the weather service in Moon Twp. The average temperature so far for January has been 7 degrees.

When temperatures drop that low, patients are at risk of severe frostbite in minutes, Kumar says.

Even more insidiuous, she says, have been cases of hypothermia, when patients' body temperature drops below the nominal healthy 98.6 degrees.

Hypothermia can cause symptoms such as disorientation, sluggishness and forgetfulness. With older patients, Kumar says, it can be difficult for family members to tell symptoms of hypothermia from the normal signs of aging.

"We've seen some very sad situations of patients spiraling down," says Kumar, who has worked in emergency medicine for more than 20 years. "I think the elderly tend to get hypothermic more quickly. Sometimes, they have poor critical circulation, or they're on multiple medications, or they have underlying dementia, and their capacity to seek help is limited."

People who are elderly or who live alone should have a buddy system during the winter, she says. They should call or visit their neighbors or friends regularly, and ask their neighbors to call and check up on them in return.

"It's not just an act of kindness --- it's a act of safety," Kumar says. "We see, so many times, neighbors bringing neighbors into the emergency department."

If someone seems to be suffering from symptoms of hypothermia --- shivering, confusion, slurred speech --- first aid includes bringing them immediately into a warmer environment and observing them closely, Kumar says. If they don't appear to recover quickly, emergency medical treatment is required, she says.

Frostbite can affect children and teen-agers as well as older adults. In most cases, frostbitten skin recovers as it warms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but in severe cases, frostbite can cause scars and other permanent damage, or even lead to the amputation of fingers or toes.

Patients who have diabetes, and who may already have some numbness in their hands or toes, are especially at risk for serious injury from frostbite, Kumar says.

When the temperature drops below freezing, she says, it's imperative for everyone --- young and old alike --- to dress warmly.

"Wear mittens instead of gloves, and wear a couple of loose layers of clothing," Kumar says. "Just covering your head, your ears, your feet with warm and thick socks make a big difference."

In cases where patients are living in poor conditions --- such as a home without sufficient heating, or where the heat has been turned off --- UPMC can refer them to social services agencies for help.

"We get very strong support from social services, and we have the (state) Department of Aging to help us," Kumar says. UPMC McKeesport also participates in a systemwide program called "U-Turn," she says, which provides a follow-up visit in a patient's home if the emergency department thinks they are still at risk.

With warmer weather in the forecast, Kumar and others are hoping for a respite. And, she says, she hopes that when the weather gets cold again, that Mon-Yough residents heed the warnings about staying warm and checking on one another.

"I hope everyone stays safe," Kumar says.

Originally published January 06, 2018.

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