Doctors Used Body Bags to Cool Off Heatstroke Patients in Pacific Northwest

In a desperate ploy to save heatstroke patients from death in late June, doctors at hospitals in Washington State zipped them into body bags filled with ice and water, Kaiser Health News [KHN] reports.

Every year, about 618 people in the United States die as a result of exposure to extreme heat. However, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] caution, that number is likely to rise precipitously as climate change continues to alter weather patterns. By 2090, for example, California is likely to record two to seven times more annual heat deaths than it does now.

A man lies in a hospital bed.
Doctors used body bags filled with ice and water to cool off patients during the record-breaking heat wave that hit the Pacific Northwest in late June 2021. A man suffering from heatstroke lies in a hospital bed in in Churu, Rajasthan, India, on June 4, 2019. MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this summer, the Pacific Northwest was hit by a historic heat wave that melted power lines, mangled roads, broke local temperature records, and flooded hospital emergency rooms with people suffering from heat-related illnesses, according to Reuters. "The large number who came in very quickly taxed the system," Cameron Buck, MD, the director of the University of Washington Valley Medical Center's emergency department, told KHN. With cooling catheters and ice packs in short supply, medical professionals turned to a morbid but nonetheless effective treatment for heatstroke: the aforementioned body bag method.

Heatstroke is the most severe of several heat-related illnesses recognized by the CDC. One of the telltale symptoms is a spike in core body temperature, according to the CDC. When core body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, organ damage, including brain damage, can result, making it imperative to cool heatstroke patients off as fast as possible, according to KHN.

"When people are this sick, you've got to cool them down fast," Grant Lipman, MD, a clinical professor of emergency medicine at Stanford University, told the medical news outlet.

Enter the body bags. When packed with a sludgy mixture of ice and cold water, they act almost like freezers. Within minutes of being zipped inside, patients can expect to experience a steep decline in their core body temperature that can be enough to nudge them out of "the danger zone," Lipman said. On June 28, Alexander St. John, MD, a research fellow in emergency medicine at UW Medicine's Harborview Medical Center, treated a woman in her 70's who had a core body temperature of 104 degrees this way. Her core body temperature soon dropped to 100.4 degrees, according to KHN.

Given the apparent inevitability of climate change, St. John told KHN that the method may be here to stay.

"I have a feeling that we're looking at many more days of extreme heat in the future, and this is likely to become more common," he said.