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Stranded on the Coldest Day of the Year | A Cold Day for a Swim

“Your brother and Roger Chandler. They’re in the water. Come quick!” The phone went dead.

Cindy had no idea her brother Phil was in the area, and the caller — it was Tara Libby — had failed to tell her where he might be or even to identify herself. Cindy called the ambulance in Jonesport, heard a busy signal, and slammed down the phone. She ordered her husband to go for the ambulance in his car, and then she jumped into her own car to look for Phil’s truck. She drove crazily, stopping people on the street to ask them if they knew where Phil was. She knew he could be dying.

A swimmer will lose mobility in icy water within eight minutes. Even if Phil hadn’t drowned, his chances of survival after suffering even moderate hypothermia would be less than 50 percent. He could still have a heart attack or stroke; he might fall into a coma. He might already have suffered brain damage. She knew that if his core temperature dropped below 93 degrees, he could become too confused to seek help — or too angry to accept it.

Finally the ambulance caught up to her. Cindy stopped, left her car running, and got in with the ambulance driver. All they could do was drive around the island until one of them spotted Phil’s truck.

* * *

Norm Libby couldn’t even find a body at the Lindsay cottage. He saw where they’d launched. He saw footprints coming from a different direction, leading up to where the truck had been parked. Norm was about to follow those footprints along the shore, when he heard a noise, a crackling in the woods. Norm ran and shouted in the direction of the noise.

He found his cousin Roger Chandler stumbling through the woods a few hundred feet from the cabin. Roger was hunched over, falling more than walking and mumbling to himself. He looked much worse than Phil. He didn’t seem to know where he was or why he was cold.

Norm helped him to the truck, then ran around to his own side before he realized that Roger wasn’t getting in. His stiffened fingers couldn’t open the door. Norm went back around and opened the door and helped Roger onto the seat. On the way back to his house, Norm could barely keep his truck on the road. He kept glancing over at the shaking figure slumped next to him. Roger looked bad.

* * *

It took the ambulance nine minutes to find Phil’s truck at the Libbys’ house. When Cindy and her husband arrived, the scene was chaotic — a dozen or so people, including neighbors, all talking at once. They had turned the heat all the way up, so that sweat poured from everyone except Roger and Phil. The two men were hyperventilating, shaking violently from overexertion and fear. Afghans, comforters, and towels were heaped over them, but they still looked pale and dazed. Roger lay on the couch, Phil sat in a recliner. They complained of pain, spoke and moved sluggishly. Cindy took their vitals. Pulse erratic. Blood pressure low. Pupils dilated. Muscles rigid. They were confused, not remembering what was said to them. Roger was worse than Phil. He responded only slowly to pain and light. He wheezed from the salt water he’d inhaled.
Cindy had him moved to the ambulance first to get him started breathing warm oxygen. He cried out in pain when they lifted him. If Roger went into cardiac arrest, Cindy knew they would have to leave without her brother. When they lifted Phil from the recliner, his body wouldn’t unbend. His muscles had stiffened so much that Cindy was afraid they’d break one of his bones trying to move him to the ambulance.

On the way to the hospital Phil became more and more incoherent. He began to cry, “Roger. I had to leave him. He’s at Lindsay’s cottage.”

Cindy spoke carefully to him. “Roger’s fine. He’s right here. He’s OK.”

“I’m here.” Roger said, “You saved me.”

Phil listened and understood. His body relaxed; his blood pressure dropped. He stopped speaking or moving.

Cindy was afraid he had given up. He didn’t need to save Roger anymore. She hovered over him all the way to the hospital in Machias, 27 miles away. She pinched him, coaxed him to stay awake. “You hang on,” she told him. “Roger’s going to need you.”

At Machias Community Hospital Roger and Phil were wheeled directly into the trauma room. Phil’s core temperature was 95 degrees; Roger’s had fallen to 94 degrees. They were given warm IVs and covered in thermal blankets. Then the staff, who had never treated a hypothermia case before, had to wait.

The first sign that they were out of danger came within an hour, when Phil began to shiver. A good sign. His body was finally warm enough to feel cold and had responded. An hour after that, Roger too had started to shake. At that point the doctor couldn’t resist a scolding. “What were you guys doing out there?” he asked.

Updated Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

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