Hannah Coolidge

Frostbite


ISSUE 3 | NATURE AND ITS ENEMIES | APR 2011

One morning, several hours before dawn, I found my boots so stiff from the cold that I could not put them on. It was dark and snowflakes drifted down from the trees with each gust of wind and I took my boots away from the tent and pissed on them. The frozen leather steamed from the warmth of my urine and I pried open the tongue of each boot and thrust my feet inside.

The path twisted incomprehensibly through the trees and for a long time we fumbled through snowdrifts into the gaping darkness. As we passed a large frozen lake the first rays of sunlight settled on the tips of the peaks to the west and from there we headed east and then southeast over talus fields towards a steep snow chute curling up the western aspect of the mountain. Gusts of wind froze my face and fingers and my damp breath stiffened into a halo around my mouth. We moved steadily upwards, making our way in the shadow of the mountain, until we reached a place where the sun cast hard streaks of light over the ridgeline. There we stopped to warm ourselves upon a rock. We chewed on Cliff bars that we held in our armpits to keep them from freezing and we looked down at our deep footprints zigzagging up the sheer slope beneath us.


Illustration by Claire Bidwell

We climbed over mixed rock and snow, weaving in and out of the shadows beneath looming needles of red schist and granite. In the afternoon we stood upon a thin ledge with our chests pressed close to the smooth rock and decided that we could go no further. We turned around and soon we were gliding down the sticky wet snow while the sun beat warmly upon us. To the north, mounds of glassy-smooth ice swelled from the earth and glistened in the sunlight and we stopped beneath them to drink the last of our water.

As we arrived at camp our throats were dry and aching from the long day and a heavy greyness had settled over the woods. We melted snow for water until the stove sputtered from the altitude and went out. After drinking I sat inside the tent with my feet protruding from the vestibule and I removed my gaiters. Beneath, the laces were stiff and useless like old spaghetti and ice was clumped tightly between the tongue and my ankle. When I tried to take off the boot I discovered that the sock was frozen to the inside of it. I slid my foot out of the sock. My toes and heel were mottled white and purple, and they were stiff and waxy and without feeling.

“Shit,” I said. “Looks I’ve got frostbite.” I showed it to my climbing partner.

“It might only be frostnip,” he replied.

I removed the other boot and the other foot was the same.

“I guess we won’t be climbing tomorrow.”

“No I guess not.”

“Well, we should probably hike out tonight if that’s okay with you. I just want to see a doctor as soon as possible, you know.”

“You’ll be fine. We can leave tonight though if you want.”

“Yeah I’d prefer that, I think.” I laughed. “I guess we got our adventure.”

My climbing partner took pictures of my feet and we packed our things and made jokes. I put on two pairs of socks and the thin rubber sandals that I used as camp shoes and I glided over the snowy trail with ease. I felt no cold and I felt no pain but I sang as I moved to keep the fear away. By now the sun had set and since the night was cloudy we walked with our headlamps on and kept our heads down to illuminate the trail beneath our feet.

At last we reached the trailhead.

As my climbing partner drove us to the emergency room I cradled my feet which were now thickly swollen and such an unnatural shade of purple that I did not want to look at them.

*              *              *

After we reached the emergency room a nurse brought me a wheelchair and I sat down. She asked to see my feet and when I removed my socks she said, “Oh my.”

“Haven’t you ever seen frostbite before?”

The nurse admitted that she had not.

When I changed into a hospital gown I began to shiver and the shivering did not stop until the nurse piled several heated blankets on top of me. I was dirty and my hair was full of grease and now that my clothes were gone I could smell myself. The nurse put an IV in my arm and I slept and when I woke I asked for water. After that the doctor came. He was tall and pale with dark hair and he seemed kind and serious. He touched my feet cautiously and asked me questions like, “Can you feel this?” and, “Close your eyes… now tell me, which toe am I touching?” I could tell when he was touching my feet but I always guessed the wrong toe and sometimes I guessed the wrong foot. The doctor looked concerned but he would not say if I would lose my toes. He only took pictures of my feet with his iPhone and said, “I don’t know, it’s too early to tell. I’m going to have the nurse rewarm your feet and meanwhile I’ll send these pictures to a friend of mine. He’s a burn specialist and he knows more about frostbite than I do. He should know what to do.”

The nurse brought a pan of warm water and I put my feet into it. She said, “I hope this is the right temperature. Tell me if it’s too hot. The rewarming might be painful so just call me if you need anything.” Then I was left sitting alone with my climbing partner. I told him I was afraid and he replied that probably it was not a big deal and after that we sat in silence. When the nurse returned she touched my feet and said, “They’re a good temperature now.” Although as far as I could tell nothing had changed. She dried my feet and placed strips of cotton between the toes to keep them from sticking together and then she wrapped my feet in bandages.

I told the nurse that I was afraid and she suggested that I call my parents. After three or four rings my mother picked up the phone, her voice low and hoarse from sleep.

“Hello?”

“Hi.”

“Hannah?”

“Yeah it’s me.”

“Hannah is everything okay?”

I paused for a long time before I spoke. I was trying not to cry. “I don’t know. I think I have frostbite and it could be really bad. I’m sorry.”

She was not angry but she was afraid and she would not stop talking. She talked for a long time and it was hard for me to interrupt her.

Finally I did. I said, “Please please stop talking, you’re upsetting me and I wish I hadn’t called.” I did not cry but my throat felt tight and I was shaking.

Her voice got flat. “I’m sorry Hannah. I love you and I only want to help.”

“I love you too. I’m sorry too.”

“Can I talk to the doctor?”

“Yeah, but please don’t be too hard on him.”

“I’ll try, Hannah.”

I slept again and when I woke two paramedics had arrived to transport me to a different hospital. I asked to use the bathroom. They told me that I was not allowed to walk anymore and then they gave me a bedpan and left the room. I did not know how to use the bedpan and I spilled warm urine on myself and on the sheets and by the time the paramedics returned it was cold and sticky. They gave me a new gown but they did not change the sheets. I had to avoid that side of the bed until they moved me.

They dropped me off at the other hospital and a nurse brought me a fruit cup but I did not eat. She took my vital signs and said things like, “You’ve been through a lot today” and “You must be so scared.” I was too tired to be scared and I only wanted to sleep but she stood by my bed and looked at me until I cried and then she held my hand.

I woke up very hungry the next morning. I called room service and ordered cream of wheat with brown sugar and an English muffin with butter and jam. I was not allowed to drink coffee because it might impede the blood flow to my toes so I asked for orange juice instead. When the food arrived I ate quickly and scraped my bowl clean. After that I watched television as I waited for the doctor to come. My feet were still bandaged so I could not look at them. The nurse came by every hour or so to check my vital signs and she would ask how bad the pain was and if I wanted oxycodone. When I told her that I had no pain she did not believe me. “There’s no need to be brave,” she said.

Dr. B. came to see me in the afternoon. She entered the room briskly and without any warning she unwrapped my feet. I averted my eyes but then I had to look. The toes were still purple-grey and swollen as they had been the night before but now a few clear blisters had formed on them. I asked the doctor how bad it was. “It’s definitely serious,” she said, “but it’s not the worst I’ve ever seen.” My toes had not yet turned black so there was a good chance I would keep them but it was too early to say for sure.

Later that day they moved me to the burn facility and shortly after that my father arrived. He had flown all the way from DC and he looked thinner than usual and his eyes were red and watery. He was wearing a yellow hairnet and blue gloves and he had a disposable apron covering his clothes. When I saw him I started to cry. He cried also and sat on the edge of my bed and hugged me for a long time. Then he hugged me again and said, “This one is from your mother. You know she loves you so much and she just wants you to get better.”

The next morning my toes were covered with blisters. The toes themselves were still dull purple but the blisters were tight and swollen and they gleamed under the fluorescent lights. Sometimes my leg would twitch and the blisters would spurt cold, sticky fluid and the loose skin would settle over the toe like a wrinkled blanket.

Dr. G. stuck his head into my room one afternoon. He did not come all the way inside because to do so he would have had to put on a gown and gloves.

“Just wanted to check in and see how the toes are coming along.”

He had been a military doctor for many years and had seen plenty of frostbite cases. He spoke softly and with a slight drawl and he did not make eye contact when he spoke.

“They’re fine. I have a lot of blisters.”

“Well you know the blisters are a good thing, they’re just part of the healing process. Any pain?”

“No.”

“Well, don’t be afraid when you start to feel it. The pain is a good sign.”

“I know. I’m looking forward to it. Do you think I’m going to lose the toes?”

“It’s hard to say but I think they’re looking good. We just have to wait and see. Do you know how the saying goes?”

“No.”

“Freeze in January, amputate in July.” The doctor chuckled. “It’s only March, you know.”

After a while the doctors stopped coming to see me because there was nothing to be done except to keep my feet clean and avoid infection. That could be left to the nurses. The nurses were kind and friendly and they were impressed with my blisters and told me gruesome stories about other patients. I curled my toes to get the circulation going and I ate spicy foods because I was told that it might help. Some of the smaller toes began to show signs of pink beneath the wrinkled dead skin and the nurses congratulated me on this development. But the big toes were still dark and blistered and I had no feeling in any of them. Also the tip of one toe had become black and hard and it was beginning to shrivel.

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