Saturday, June 9, 2012

How to Combat Dehydration

I’m writing this post at 6:00 PM and its 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside with a heat index of 102 degrees.  A couple of hours ago I dumped two bags of ice into my dog’s wading pool in order to help keep them cool.  My blue heelers were bred to work in the heat of the Australian sun and I care greatly for my dogs.  By the way, thank you Australia for developing such a fine breed!  But this summer is going to be very hot and it brings back memories of episodes with severe dehydration.  On one occasion I was hospitalized.  And last September I stopped a young fellow from venturing on in what would have been certain death.

It was the middle of the day and my cousin called me over to her house because someone had shown up at her porch lost and thirsty.  The boy was from El Salvador. He had entered the US illegally with a group at the Río Grande the night before.  Their guide (they are called a “coyote” in these parts) told them to rest a few hours after they were dropped off on a lonely ranch road about five miles south of where we live.  When the people in the group fell asleep the coyote absconded with their money and disappeared into the woods.

The group panicked upon awakening and apparently everyone fled in different directions.  This is common in the region.  Within five miles east and west of where we live there have been over 100 bodies found in the past couple of years.  They were people who thought they could trek across this arid land with little water and who died either from sun stroke or severe dehydration.

The young man was shaking and crying and looked in bad shape.  I gave him water and when he calmed down I offered him a sandwich.  He was too nervous to eat.  He said he was 19 years old and he wanted to go to New York City to see his father and brother.  I’ll not forget his intense blue eyes and sandy brown hair and the El Salvadorian accent in his Spanish.  He had been told that somehow he could find a way to New York City from Houston and he planned to walk to Houston because the coyote told him Houston was only a few miles away.

We were not particularly shocked to hear how the coyote had misled him.  They are ruthless and this is common.  We produced a map and showed him that Houston was, in fact, almost 350 miles away.  Then we showed him that New York City is almost 2,000 miles from where we live.

That young fellow was the same age as my youngest son.  All I could think about when talking to him was what if this was my boy lost and afraid in a foreign land?  Would anybody give him a helping hand?  I found the thought terrifying and I said to the young man, “I will not tell you what to do.  But I can assure you that you will not make it.  It’s over fifty miles to the next watering hole and you will be walking across a desert.  How will I be able to live knowing that I let you go and that you will surely die.”

The boy was so nervous and scared that he barely talked.  He was completely out of his element.  Heck, I doubt that any of us grizzled woods roamers around here could make that trek.  I probably wouldn’t make it but a few miles before I succumbed to the heat and lack of water.  In these parts water is vital.  In fact, water is more important than any knife or long machete or fire-starter or anything else.  The second most important thing is a wide-brimmed hat.  From then on the list is as follows: 1) salt & potassium tablets 2) bandana 3) signaling device like a mirror 4) some beef jerky or granola bars 5) leather gloves 6) sunglasses 7) a lightweight tarp 8) some cordage.  A knife doesn’t even enter the top ten list.  A light machete might come in handy but if I could carry only a couple of things they would be a water-filled canteen and a water-purifier.  All else is luxury beyond that point.

I knew there was nothing else to do but call the Border Patrol.  Thankfully, the young fellow said, “Call them.”  When the BP showed up I told the agents, “Be nice to this kid.”  When he was about to get into their vehicle he wanted to give me a hug.  I let him put his arm around my shoulder and I told him that all was going to be okay.  I hope wherever he is that he is doing well.  I was angry that his father would be so far away from his son.  My children are the most important people in my life.  I could not imagine not knowing my son.  But I should not be so judgmental.  Perhaps the father was doing his best for his family.  Such a cruel world indeed.

Many of you live in similar climates where heat rules and we are but minutes from death when we cross that threshold into dehydration.  The signs of dehydration are sometimes difficult to perceive until it is too late.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are bullet proof.  Always take precautions.  Never ever venture out without carrying water.  I am amazed at the people who I have roamed the woods with who never think to carry water.  I judge a person’s woods knowledge by what they carry.  People who hike in these parts without water get an immediate ranking of Zero!

Here are tips to avoid dehydration besides the need to carry water.  First, move slowly.  Do not generate too much heat.  Moving slowly is what the best woods roamers do.  Neophytes want to move fast.  Keep to the shade as much as possible and if you find yourself in a bad situation then stay in the shade until help arrives.  Drink water frequently.  You might have heard the adage: It’s better to have water in you than on you.  But that means that you must learn to gauge how much water you will need.  Figure that out and then add more!  It’s better to carry too much water than end up without enough.

Going from mild dehydration to severe dehydration is an insidious event.  It begins in several ways.  One is slight dizziness.  Another is a dry mouth.  You will also stop urinating.  Your heart beat will increase.  Your blood pressure will begin to fall.  You might have a sudden headache and develop a fever.  Dizziness soon increases to intense confusion.  In short order the confusion becomes delirium.  Your skin is hot to the touch and no longer supple.  At this point you are in the process of dying.  You will be unable to perform the simplest tasks.  You might start to vomit and this will dehydrate you more.  Your delirium can proceed to coma.  If you do not receive immediate fluids mixed with electrolytes you will not survive.  I was given fluids intravenously and within a few hours I was okay.  But I have no recollection of being admitted to the hospital and I was later told they thought I wasn’t going to make it

Dehydration is preventable but I can assure you that this summer more bodies will be found in the surrounding brushlands.  I would hope not but I am not optimistic on that score.