Have you ever had frostbite? I have.
I think I was in about the 8th grade when my father started telling me how he enjoyed ice skating while growing up in Butte, Montana. Being indoors in the winter time in Montana in the 70’s was boring, isolating, and claustrophobic, I was interested in finding an outdoor activity that entailed being outside. Missoula had a pond, fed by water from the Clark Fork river, that froze over and was officially sanctioned by the city for ice skating. It had a “warming hut” that was supervised by an employee and was surrounded by tall wooden poles that supported powerful flood lights and a speaker that played music from one of the local radio stations. The flood lights obviously enabled skating at night.
Being that this was a pond, and that the water level of the pond would vary over the course of a winter, giant cracks would form on the surface. The city was clueless regarding maintenance of the rink, and would only flood the top surface about once a season. They would never scrape off the accumulated ice shavings that would inevitably accumulate on an ice rink.
Being that my introduction to ice skating was through my father, I took what he told me about it very seriously. He told me that all the serious skaters in Butte would
use speed skates, not hockey skates or figure skates. My father and I drove to Butte to buy ourselves some speed skates. Not surprisingly, we were the only two
humans on the rink wearing speed skates…
The skates had no insulation. The upper part was one thin layer of leather. Whatever insulation to keep my feet warm had to come from my socks. Over the course of
several seasons I tried numerous sorts of socks; wool socks, silk socks, and special “Space Age Socks” which I believe had little strips of Mylar woven into them. None of them worked to keep my feet warm! One night I even sprinkled chili powder inside my socks, but the rink happened to be closed that night, and I was not able to go skating. That
was a bad idea! My feet began to burn painfully…
I still continued to skate, despite having cold feet. I discovered a pattern: I would start skating and my feet would become very cold. This would be uncomfortable and borderline painful. Eventually the pain would go away, but this was actually my feet becoming numb. When I would finish skating and change into my tennis shoes, the feeling in my feet would return in a matter of minutes. I did this repeatedly, and didn’t think anything of it.
One night I returned to the warming hut after changing into my shoes and my feet remained numb. By the time I was in the car and driving home I became more concerned, as the feeling had failed to return to my feet. When we got home I decided to warm my feet in hot water. In retrospect, this was the WRONG thing to do, and I take full responsibility for my ignorant action. This did not result in a return of feeling. I went upstairs and joined my unflappable father in the study. I told him what was going on. He suggested I had frostbite, and the correct action was to put my feet in a pan of COLD water and warm it up slowly. My mother was in a bedroom, and became aware of my predicament. She became alarmed, and called her friend Betty, who was a nurse. This resulted in new orders; namely to put my feet in a pan of WARM water. This was the wrong advice, and my father was unwilling to overrule this bad advice. I didn’t know better either way.
My feet were placed into a pan of WARM water. Eventually the feeling started to come back, and I became less alarmed. But with it came PAIN.
By the time feeling fully came back into my feet I was in agony. I believe this was the worst physical pain I’ve ever been in my life. It was a searing, burning pain. I believe I was given some sort of OTC pain killer, probably acetaminophen or aspirin. This did nothing. I remember writhing in pain sitting in the study next to my father, trying not to exhibit the outward signs of burning agony.
In retrospect, I must assign blame to myself for the initial immersion in hot water, yet that was an act born of ignorance, not willful disregard of good advice. I wish my father would have interceded and overruled the bad advice from Nurse Betty. The good news is that I never lost a toe, or experienced necrosis.
If you live in a cold environment I believe it’s essential to thoroughly understand the nature of both hypothermia and frostbite.
These days MCcormick Pond is no longer used for ice skating: