21 January

Hypothermia…Of Course.

by Jon Katz

I remember when I was living alone on the first Bedlam Farm in Hebron. One night, I fell on the ice and was knocked briefly unconscious. This happened from time to time, the hills were steep and icy. Rose would nip me on the ear and growl until I woke up, she saved me more than once.

When I did get up one night – it was -30, which was not all that uncommon that winter – I got into the house. I don’t know how long I was lying out in that cold.

I remember I was irritable, drained, my stomach was upset, I kept shivering, a friend called and he said I was mumbling, I felt clumsy and uncoordinated, I kept dropping things and stumbling into furniture.  I was drowsy and confused, I had  trouble remembering what had happened to me.

My friend was alarmed, he came over right a way and found me wandering downstairs, I had no idea what was happening to me, but I felt I had fallen into an awful place. “Something is wrong with me,” I said, I wondered if I was having a stroke or some awful kind of flue.

“Listen,” he said, “You have hypothermia.”

He brought some brandy, which I drank, made me some hot tea, wrapped me in blankets, got me to lie down. I felt asleep and didn’t wake up until the morning. He had left a note pinned to the sofa asking that I call him, and I did. He said I sounded all right.

I stayed in bed for most of that day and although I didn’t think of it the night before, I knew he was correct. When I was at the doctor, he gave me a long talk on hypothermia. I needed one.

Routine cold is one thing. Sub-zero cold with high winds and snow and ice  rain is another.

You just have to think about what you are doing, and you really can get into serious trouble if you don’t. High winds and wet snow and sub-zero temperatures can act quickly. Yesterday was the perfect storm.  I probably had hypothermia a dozen times at the first Bedlam Farm. Yet I was never really prepared for it, and I never once recognized it when it was happening to me.

Yesterday, I saw Maria gradually descend into this state, and neither of us realized what was happening.

She was irritable, almost everything I said upset her. She argued about small things – not like her. She kept saying she was in a “bad state,” that something was wrong with her. She told me she didn’t want me to work with her on the bedroom painting any longer, something that surprised me, as we both love working on the farmhouse together. She looked sick to me, pale and drawn.

She got drowsy, had almost no energy suddenly, and just stopped working in the late afternoon. She went and drew a hot bath, she said she was cold and couldn’t get warm.  I was worried about her, but she said she didn’t want to talk about it – also unusual – and just lay on the couch.

I saw she was confused, and disoriented. She had no color in her face. She had been out shoveling heavy wet snow in – 30 wind chill weather on and off for hours. Every time it snowed, which was on and off for 24 hours, she went out and shoveled again.

We both have this idea that we have to keep up with the snow. We are right.

She was hauling hay out to the barn and shoveling manure as well, then taking photos and videos.

Because of my angina, I can’t be out in that cold for too long. I kept coming in and going out, I was happy to do as much as I did.

I remembered the doctor telling me that the people most at risk are thin people with low body fat, and people who are middle-aged and older.

There is a tough, Willa Cather macho streak in Maria, much worse than mine.

She never admits to being tired or vulnerable, she is obsessive about chores and work. In addition to all that snow shoveling, she had been painting and priming the bedroom for hours. And taking care of the animals. When I said she needed to take it easy, she got annoyed and snapped at me.

I had been out shoveling, but my heart reminds me to work in short bursts, and take frequent breaks. I have a lot more body mass than she does, the cold can’t get to my organs so easily.

Of course, I realized last night in a sudden instant what was happening. It all came rushing back to me.

“You are hypothermic,” I said, as she got into bed and fell asleep under the warm electric blankets. I don’t think she heard me.

I saw my own doctor this morning and she reaffirmed the symptoms of hypothermia. I went online and researched all the symptoms.

When she woke up, I was ready. I told her once again that she had hypothermia. This time she heard it. I read off the symptoms from several websites.

Maria was shocked to think about this. She denied it at first, pooh-poohed,  then acknowledged that it had to be true.  Maria can handle the truth.

She had experienced almost all of those symptoms, and she remembered that she was irritated by everything and disoriented. Of course she wanted me to work with her on the bedroom she said, it was always meant to be a joint project, something we did together.

She loved it when we worked together. She barely remembered telling me she didn’t want to do that.

She also smiled and said I was sometimes not as careful with the paint as I ought to be, but she was used to that. So, I thought, there was some truth there. I think her desire to finish this project alone was real, and part of her own creativity. I wouldn’t put that all on the hypothermia. But she can talk about that herself.

One of the dangerous things about hypothermia is that the person feeling it almost never recognizes what is happening. This is true of me with low sugar episodes, I never realize what is happening unless Maria or someone else points it out to me. I just think something is wrong with me

We do not take the precautions I know we should in such weather. We don’t  have heavy winter clothes, we go outside in this severe cold and take pictures, videos, talk to the animals, clean up the barn, check on the chickens, shovel paths, scrape the cars. We love the country, and reject all the phobias about it, it feels like city people hysteria.

So yesterday was a wake-up call, we have to take our lives a bit more seriously in the winter. Falling into a “bad place,” can mean a lot of things. In winter cold like this, it can also mean hypothermia.

Maria was relieved to know what was happening to her and is more careful this morning about the time she spends outside in this weather.  That probably won’t last too long.

I learned many lessons about extreme cold in West Hebron,  but neither of us retains much memory about these and we both tire of the incessant warnings in our culture from everything from dogs to weather.

I am surprised I didn’t see it sooner. Yesterday, the weather was almost unbelievably harsh and chilling. Today is worse.  But the answer, as I learned some years ago, is to respect it, not hide from it.

I felt good about our talks yesterday about the bedroom, I appreciated her honesty. But there was something else going on, and I am glad to see what it was.

We will both be finishing painting our bedroom together once Maria feels stronger. That should be tomorrow.


  1. This makes sense why that photo of Maria painting your bedroom just did not seem like her. I don’t remember seeing such an expression on her face before in your photos. She just wasn’t herself because of the hypothermia. So glad she’s doing better!

  2. The poor little mite! (I know Maria would not want me using this term of endearment, but she looked so forlorn, wiped out and sad in your photo of her in your bedroom! Please apologize to her for me. It’s meant in the nicest way possible. 🙂
    I knew she was exhausted but not being in the medical field I never thought of hypothermia. Great call, Jon.
    Both of you take care of yourselves and keep warm!

    1. No, I wouldn’t call Maria a poor little mite. 🙂 She wouldn’t care for that. She is very strong and resilient, back out into the pasture today. She just did too much yesterday. We are good, and thanks for caring. I agree about the photo…

  3. So happy to hear you are both ok in this extreme weather. I was not aware of those symptoms of hypothermia, so it is a valuable lesson. Rest for you both!

  4. I live north of you, on the Canadian border and N.YS….on the St.Lawrence river. I too was out yesterday in the blizzard, shoveling. I go out, do some, come in, go back out etc BUT I have invested in some seriously warm winter wear. North face 40.00 mittens with hand warmers if you want to use them. Eastern Mounntain Sports insulated boots. Ugg’s on sale from Ottawa. Goose down Northface jackets and my kids old snowboarding jackets. Scarves. Heavy duty winter hats. I was completely toasty yesterday shoveling. It’s the back muscles I want to rest between things. I will say, I did NOT appreciate the snowplow completely filling in my driveway in the early hours this morning. You want REALLY good outdoor wear, quality. I have to say, when I peeked out my bedroom window in the predawn darkness of Sunday morning…I saw a blizzard! In the inky blackness of dawn, Mother Nature was flexing her muscle. It was a beautiful sight.

  5. Even though I do not deal with weather like yours I hate going out and getting chilled. I got some silk long johns. It isn’t cold enough here for the tops to be comfortable to me although I do wear them if I’m going to be out in the weather for extended times. The bottoms are a staple. They are thin so they don’t bulk up under your clothes and they are oh so toasty warm from waist to ankle.

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