Heat Exhaustion May Have Helped Save a Hiker's Life at Grand Canyon National Park

View from the Grand View Trail.

View from the Grand View Trail. Photo by wisconsinhiker via Creative Commons and Flickr.

Heat exhaustion is a recurring and serious problem at Grand Canyon National Park and other areas with hot weather, and recreationists should always take steps to avoid it. In a bizarre twist, however, a recent case had a rare and unexpected spin-off—it may have helped save a hiker's life.

According to a park report,

Late in the afternoon of Thursday, June 30th, park dispatch received a call from a visitor reporting that a man in his early 60s was suffering from heat exhaustion on the Grandview Trail. Preventative search and rescue ranger Tom Bruno responded and located the man on the trail approximately a mile below the canyon rim.

Bruno began to treat the man for heat exhaustion by rehydrating him and cooling down his core temperature. The man was showing little improvement two hours later, so Bruno began making arrangements to extricate him from the canyon. Given the steep and narrow terrain, a litter carry was not feasible.

After learning that the park helicopter was not available, preventative search and rescue ranger Ian Buchanan hiked down to their location with overnight gear and additional supplies and prepared the group to spend the night in the canyon.

Park paramedic Lisa Hendy hiked in the following morning, provided IV therapy, and prepared the man for transport to the South Rim via short haul. From there, he was transported a short distance to the medical clinic on the South Rim.

So far, so good...a desirable outcome for a scenario that's unfortunately far too common. This case, however, took an unexpected turn, thanks to the alert staff at the medical clinic in the park.

Although [the patient] hadn’t complained of chest pain, clinic staff found him to be having asymptomatic cardiac disrhythmias upon arrival. He was immediately flown to the Flagstaff Medical Center, where he underwent emergency cardiac bypass surgery later that day.

In the absence of visible symptoms, the man's heart condition and need for bypass surgery may have gone undetected until he suffered a serious or even fatal cardiac emergency. While a case of heat exhaustion is never a desirable event, in this unusual situation that incident brought a cardiac problem to the attention of medical personnel in a very timely manner.

The incident offers a good reminder about the risks of hiking in the Canyon, or in similar hot, dry locales, and the park website has some excellent tips for summer hiking.

The man had been hiking with his brother when they ran out of water. The air temperature at the time of the incident was 104 degrees.

Footnote: In case you're curious about the term, "preventative search and rescue ranger," this is a great approach being used in parks such as Grand Canyon and Yosemite. PSAR (Preventative Search and Rescue) "involves talking to hikers about their skill level and known hazards in an attempt to prevent any mishaps," and PSAR rangers are assigned to contact visitors at locations such as trailheads and heavily used trails.

The concept was touched on in an article on the Traveler earlier this year, "Staying Safe and How Not to Become A SAR Statistic in the National Park System."