Cold kills


Update: This story has been updated to reflect Keith Stephens’ condition.

A Willow man is in a coma in a hospital in Alaska’s largest city after apparently slipping on snow-covered and icy ground, sliding beneath his pickup and ending up pinned there for hours in temperatures near zero or colder.

A neighbor of Keith Preston Stephens reported the 58-year-old man’s Ford F-250 had gone off the road only a minute or two from his home on Saturday. 

A family member said Monday that Stephens remains in the intensive care unit at the Providence Medical Center, but doctors believe he has a good chance of survival. He does appear, however, to have suffered severe frostbite to his hands.

Stephens was described as “a real toughie,” who could still use “lots of prayers.”

Neighbor Rudy Wittshirk said Stephens’s truck ended up off the road and stuck at a steep angle. Wittshirk theorized that in getting out Stephens “slipped on the embankment, fell under the vehicle and was rendered unconscious. I presume people drove by and simply saw a truck off the road, a common occurrence, and did not notice the driver lying underneath.”

Alaska State Troopers reported they received a report of the truck in the ditch near mile 39 of the Willow Fishhook Road just before 11 p.m. Saturday. The trooper report was unclear as to when help  actually arrived on the scene.

It said a trooper and emergency medical service personnel pulled an “unresponsive male” out from under the truck and medevaced him to Providence “with suspected life threatening injuries due to hours of exposure to sub-zero temperatures.”

Friends believe Stephens was under the truck for four or five hours, Wittshirk said. They reported his body heat had melted all the snow beneath him. It is unclear how well he was dressed.

Stephens had a core temperature of 76 degrees when he arrived at the hospital in Anchorage, about 70 miles south of the scene of the accident. Normal body temperatures is 98.6 degrees.  Most people lose consciousness when their core temperature drops to somewhere between 82 and 78 degrees. Core temperatures below that are considered seriously life threatening.

“…This is well below the temperature region where the body shuts down,” said Wittshirk, a highly experienced outdoorsman. “It is extraordinary that Keith survived at all.”

He is being helped by science that has learned a lot in the last couple decades.

Several apparently dead people have now been brought back to life with proper rewarming after suffering severe hypothermia. A revolution in treatment started after a Norwegian woman was reportedly”frozen solid” after falling in a creek while on a ski outing in 1999.

Survival story

Twenty-nine-year-old radiologist Anna Bågenholm had no detectable heartbeat when pulled out of the water, Fiona Macdonald reported in Science Alert last year. “She wasn’t breathing. She was clinically dead. No one had ever been brought back from such a low temperature before, but her friends (a pair of Norwegians doctors) immediately started CPR on her, hoping that she might be able to be revived after being air-lifted to the University Hospital of North Norway in Tromsø.

‘By the time she reached the operating room at the hospital, it had been more than 2.5 hours since she first fell in the ice, and her temperature was still an unprecedented 13.7 degrees Celsius (56.7 Fahrenheit).”

Doctors weren’t optimistic, but they began slowly rewarming the young woman.

Twenty-four hours after the accident, her heart started beating again. Eleven days later, she opened her eyes.

“But it took more than a year for her to be able to move and walk again due to nerve damage,” Macdonald wrote. “She’s now fully recovered, and works at the same hospital that saved her life.”

Bågenholm’s survival led to changes in hypothermia treatment protocols.

Prior to 1999, no patient who arrived at the Tromsø hospital with a heart stoppage form hypothermia survived, Norwegian doctors reported in a 2014 study, but after the Bågenholm case an agreement to use extracorporeal life support (ECLS) for rewarming saved nine out of 24 patients between 1999 and 2013.

The study published in Rescucitation was titled “Nobody is dead until warm and dead,” an idea first voiced by Alaska Dr. William Mills, an earlier leader in hypothermia and cold-injury research in the 1970s.

“His frostbite program in Anchorage was started with a $50,000 research grant from the U.S. Naval Research Department and later buttressed with a grant from the Alaska Legislature for $800,000 that was administered by the School of Nursing and Health Science at University of Alaska Anchorage,” his 2011 obituary noted. “From this funding, he developed the High Altitude Research Camps at 7,300 feet and 14,000 feet on Mount McKinley.

“While practicing in Alaska, Dr. Mills developed a system of care for freezing-injury that is now utilized in most of the world. He was cited as ‘the nation’s leading authority on cold injury’ at that time, and has been written of and referenced for his expertise in many journals and symposia.”

More than a few Alaska climbers can thank Mills for the fact that they still have fingers and toes that suffered through frostbite. Friends of Stephens are hoping the knowledge accumulated over the years will help him.







13 replies »

  1. Hopefully frostbite “specialst” Dr. O’Malley, father of columnist Julia O’Malley, is no longer practicing in Anchorage. Once dealt with him regarding a frostbite issue. What an arrogant and incompetent moron. Hopefully this guy doesn’t get the O’Malley experience.

    • Mengele was one sick bastard, Paul. and the hypothermia “data” he collected while murdering people with ice water in the name of “research” has been the subject of much debate for decades now. the Mossad almost got him in Argentina in 1960, but let him get away in the interest of making sure they got Eichmann. Mengele eventually died while swimming in Brazil. too bad. the Israelis should have caught him, dropped his ass 50 miles offshore in the Beaufort Sea, and told him to swim for shore.

    • While your post may be true, your point is??
      I’ll add that no sled dogs die from freezing that are fed properly. My own experience is that they (sled dogs) do quite well being tethered outside in interior Alaska temperatures as long as they get adequate food. It also doesn’t hurt to provide them with straw of some other form of insulation such as spruce boughs between them and the ground.
      During a particular high-pressure system in interior Alaska in the 80s, we kept a small number of sled dogs that ended up spending two full weeks where the temperatures didn’t rise above 40 below with the extreme low of 67 below showing once. This was on a trapline between Minto and Manley Hot Springs and I cooked their feed and added fats from fish oil and beef and pork fat. These dogs did not get exposed to high winds that would have posed some other wind chill issues, but my point is that sled dogs that are properly fed do not die from exposure to low temperatures. They clearly need more fats (energy) during these times but as long at these energy needs are provided the dogs do quite well.
      Referring to kennels that don’t provide adequate food for their dogs is akin to referring to owners that let their dogs run free near traffic, IMO. Neither is accepted behavior and probably both are illegal in most areas.

      • Bill,
        Your comments are useless, arrogant, biased, and unwarranted in most cases…

        There is no clause that a person’s comments “make a point”…

        The above comment was true….Sled dogs do freeze to death in Alaska while chained up through the artic winter.

        My wife was just at our vet’s and he is caring for a dog who’s paw was amputated after it froze to the ground while left outside this winter.

      • Well Steve,
        Your comment is on the order of “animals killed in hot car” during Summer heat. The statement is true but in no way is it any reflection on how animals are normally treated.
        My post is intended to show how sled dogs can be kept in Alaskan conditions without anything like “freezing to death.” If you want to argue with this, have at it but please don’t use extreme examples of inhumane treatment that nobody is on board with IMO. And, while I may be biased here, it with my own experience that I’ve developed this bias.
        As far as a point to original post, it can stand on it own about as well as the statement “animals are killed in hot cars.” While it’s not required, without a point, the statement is pretty worthless IMO. Sort of along the lines of your commenting on your wife’s vet visit-doesn’t get us anywhere IMO.

    • i’m going to let this pass this time, Lisbeth. but from now on let’s save dog comments for dog stories. some guy nearly dead as the result of a bizarre accident really doesn’t deserve to be made the focus of a debate on dog care. others might take note.

      • I wouldn’t let her comment pass. She is the type of person who values animals above humans. Bill is correct….well cared for sled dogs live quite comfortably in our Northern temps. Lisbeth’s extremist views are nutty as demonstrated by her comment about dogs on a story of a man fighting for his life. I wish Mr. Stephens a full and complete recovery!

      • Craig,
        Maybe you can address Bill’s bantering of anyone he does not agree with?
        Was alcohol a factor in this incident?

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