Lab Rats

Heat exhaustion

On the lesser of two evils

Tom Mahony 17 February 2010

Water: don't leave home without it

Water and air-conditioning beckoned, but I reluctantly acquiesced to protocol – I could camel through a couple more hours in the name of science

I’ve flirted with heat exhaustion once in my life. The malady occurred during a summer plant survey in a sun-baked mountain range in the late afternoon after my bottled water had run dry.

The morning started routinely enough. I staggered around my house at four a.m. in search of field gear I’d been too lazy to pack the night before, thinking only three things: (1) I’m running late; (2) I need coffee; and (3) I need coffee immediately or there will be violence.

As I drove away, guzzling my beloved dark roast, the caffeine jolted my synapses and I realized I hadn’t brought enough water. No stores were open that early. I circled back home, wondering if entering the house to fetch more water was worth the risk. The dog would bark and I’d have to either turn on the lights or stumble through the minefield of toys – each one ready to blare at the slightest touch – in darkness. I’d likely wake my wife and kids long before their time, and would suffer badly from the fallout. Trust me. Heat exhaustion was a chocolate truffle in comparison.

Suddenly I became very afraid. I turned the car around and headed for the mountains.

In the field, things started out well. There is nothing like the quiet of dawn. Birds and mammals scurried about. The glowing sky looked brilliant. But the beauty was tinged with foreboding: when you’re sweating before the sun comes up, it’s going to be a scorching day.

My water supply dried up in the afternoon just as the heat was peaking. Not a trace of wind stirred the air. I was the only moving creature out there. The vegetation stood motionless and the abundant wildlife of dawn was holed up underground or in the shade, laughing and giving me the finger.

I had one area left to survey, a ridge accessed by a brutal climb. The habitat was unlikely to support rare plants. That’s why I’d left it for last. Yet my survey protocol required me to traverse the entire property. Water and air-conditioning beckoned, but I reluctantly acquiesced to protocol. I could camel through a couple more hours in the name of science.

So I started marching. As expected, I found no rare plants up there, but I did find the limitations of the human body. I felt weak and nauseous and dizzy, my throat raging with thirst.

Screw science.

I limped through the last mile on the verge of collapse. I finally reached the car, drove to the nearest market, and gulped every electrolyte in site. As I sat there, fighting nausea and a splitting headache, there was only one conclusion to draw from the experience:

It was significantly less painful than waking my wife and kids at four a.m.