Sombrero time, and more hot weather advice for '4 wheelers.'

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on May 22, 2018 # Health, Safety

Living in the soggy Pacific Northwest, the first warm rays of sunshine that finally reappear in the Spring provide an opportunity to finally roam freely outside and begin to work on our deficits of vitamin D. This region of the U.S. has a high incidence of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a type of depression caused by the persistent cloudy skies and winter rains that keep our surroundings green and mossy; we desperately yearn for the arrival of Spring to burn away the clouds. As a power wheelchair user, I risk damage to my mobility device if it is exposed to too much rain or moisture, so the sunshine is especially welcome.

Like many of my nearby friends and family members, my straw hats have been laying on the counter for several weeks just waiting for the warm weather and sunshine to arrive. It is here but, as I have learned while living in southern climates, overdoing that sun and heat can prove dangerous to me and my peers. Whether called sunstroke, heat exhaustion or heat stroke, overheating our paralyzed bodies is risky and can even be fatal. Other related dangers I have been warned about include Dysreflexia, increased heart rate, sunburn and other damage to our skin including Cancers like Melanoma.

I have learned that the common sense steps everyone should take during the summer months are even more important for those of us who are paralyzed or otherwise immobile from any cause. We can get prepared for time spent in the sun by wearing UV protective sunglasses and clothing that protects our skin from ultraviolet rays, renewing our sunscreen supply each year with SPF 50+ lotions, using them to cover any exposed skin, and drinking plenty of fluids that do not contain alcohol or caffeine. For my hydration needs, I always carry a 100-ounce Camelbak hydration pack to assure that I don't run out of fluids during the day. I supplement that with cold drinks whenever possible as well, but drinking fluids does not substitute for keeping the body cool and protecting the skin.

There are several reasons why the cervical spinal cord injury that caused quadriplegia puts me at even greater risk of injury from heat during summer months. For one thing, I do not sweat below my injury level, which reduces my body's usual ability to evaporate moisture for cooling. I also wear thigh high compression stockings and an abdominal binder due to lack of lower body circulation and the use of the muscles that aid with my digestion and breathing; both of those items restrict my body's ability to cool naturally. To make matters worse, my wheelchairs have dark-colored upholstery, which can become extremely hot in direct sunlight. It is also more difficult for me to take an impromptu dip in a swimming pool or lake in order to cool off.

Once I get overheated, it can take several hours for me to get cooled back down; during my past 30 years living with paralysis, I have had four instances where I became that seriously overheated. While some people might anticipate that such instances would happen while lounging on a sunny beach somewhere, all of mine occurred in my personal vehicles when they had inoperable air conditioning.

Combating overheating can take time, as even a slight increase in body temperature can prove resistant to cooling. In my case, that first instance of serious overheating required cooling pads and ice packs. Since I was already in the hospital they also monitored me for the next three hours, when things finally returned to normal. For some reason, they didn't give me any more day passes for field trips until the date of my final discharge. At home, I have benefited from having wet towels spread across my body to cool me off while I lie in front of a fan.

Before that overheating happens again, I plan to be fully equipped to enjoy the summer. I will be the one parked under a shade tree near the beach, wearing a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, drinking plenty of water and reading a book.

© 2018 Michael Collins