Meet Prof. Popsicle
Gordon Giesbrecht didn't become the world's leading authority on hypothermia by sitting around the campfire. He got there by leaping into frozen lakes, injecting ice water into his veins, and taking lots of very, very cold baths.
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WITH A SIGNAL FROM the cameraman, Gordon Giesbrecht pushes off on his cross-country skis and starts moving over the thin layer of powder that blankets the icy surface of a lake on the outskirts of Winnipeg, Manitoba. The mercury has stabilized at a frisky six degrees Fahrenheit. Six feet tall, with powerful limbs, Giesbrecht moves in rhythmic strides—swish, swish, swish—his breath leaving a trail of fog in the air.
Suddenly the solid ice turns to slush, and Giesbrecht plunges in. As the frigid water saturates his jacket and Gore-Tex pants, his first instinct is to let out a loud gasp. Gasping is bad. If your head goes under mid-gasp, you can drown. Intent on staying alive, Giesbrecht quickly gets his breathing under control and focuses on shedding his skis. Bobbing in the icy soup, he thrusts his hands under the surface and fumbles with the releases for ten long seconds. Finally he gets them off and…a boom mike is thrust in front of his chattering teeth. “Water sucks the heat out of you 25 times faster than air at the same temperature,” he says. Giesbrecht isn’t speaking to his immediate audience—a TV crew and a clutch of EMTs who are nervously looking on—but to 55,000 viewers watching a Canadian science channel. He treads water for a few more minutes and sputters out a handful of other fun winter facts (“I have a window of two to five minutes to pull myself out, but it would be an hour or two before I died of hypothermia”). Meanwhile, the rescuers are looking anxious. They desperately want to hustle him out of the lake and into the warmth of their waiting ambulance.
To their collective relief, Giesbrecht successfully demonstrates the “kick and pull” technique, lifting himself out of the water and rolling away from the fragile ice edge. But what happens next is more suited to an old Buster Keaton routine than a science show: Gordon jumps straight back in. The paramedics immediately throw him a looped extension cord and drag him to safety. Hooray! He’s out! No, wait, he’s…lowered himself back into the lake. So they pull him out with a branch. But he plunges in again. The crew slides an aluminum ladder toward Giesbrecht and he grabs hold. They drag him onto the solid stuff—only to watch, astonished, as he leaps back in for the fourth time.
Giesbrecht has now been in the 36-degree water for 15 minutes. He dunks his head under the slushy surface one more time. “If I wasn’t rescued really soon, I would go unconscious,” he slurs, his eyelids drooping heavily. Finally, his voice flagging, he mumbles, “Ready for rescue.” This time he means it.
TO GORDON GIESBRECHT, the world’s leading authority on freezing to death, a midwinter dip is just another day at the office. Believing that the best way to study the effects of cold on the human body is to get intimate with the elements, this 45-year-old physiologist and director of the University of Manitoba’s Laboratory for Exercise and Environmental Medicine has lowered his body temperature below 95 degrees, the threshold of hypothermia, a mind- and body-numbing 33 times.
The masochism doesn’t stop there. In March 2001, to learn more about how the body metabolizes various energy sources in subfreezing temperatures, Giesbrecht and four other men each dragged 180 pounds of gear across the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg, a body of water roughly the size of New Hampshire, for 19 days. Then there was that winter 1999 experiment during which, in an effort to cool his body core while keeping his skin temperature constant, he had a colleague inject, over a one-hour period, more than a gallon of nearly frozen saline directly into his bloodstream. “He’s a risk taker,” says William Forgey, a 60-year-old physician who is the past president of the Colorado Springs-based Wilderness Medical Society. “If he needs to take it to the edge, he does it himself. While the expertise is there and the risk is controlled, it’s still dangerous stuff. He’s like a race-car driver.”
There is, of course, a very good reason why Giesbrecht keeps getting behind the wheel: This winter, like every winter, athletes, adventurers, and hapless innocents will get themselves into trouble in the cold. While no organization keeps detailed statistics on cold-related deaths in the outdoors, each year hypothermia kills an estimated 700 Americans. An additional 1,800 or so are thought to perish in cold-water drownings.
Giesbrecht has devoted his academic career to improving the odds for such victims of exposure. He is Professor Popsicle, the King of Chill. He may have a cliché for every occasion—”Keep cool, but don’t freeze,” he’ll say, smirking like Mister Rogers—but he is one of a kind. Or at least a few: There are roughly a dozen scientists worldwide who specialize in human thermoregulation, the study of how the body responds to temperature changes. Only a handful undertake human experiments, and no one goes as far as Giesbrecht, who has intentionally taken his core temp lower—down to 88.2 degrees—than any other researcher. “I’m the scientist who does things for real,” he says, “to make sure I really know what I’m talking about.”
Though many of Giesbrecht’s achievements are strictly academic, some of his scientific discoveries are already helping to save lives. His greatest contribution to the world of hypothermia treatment is the concept of immediate rewarming. It used to be that if you were found cold, stiff, and barely alive on a lonely mountainside, rescuers would leave you chilling until they got you to the nearest emergency room. The fear was that immediate rewarming could shock the body badly enough to cause death. But after five years of study, Giesbrecht determined that it is almost impossible to warm someone up too quickly. Now many first responders, from Coast Guard techs to those trained by the Wilderness Medical Society, have started rewarming victims in the field.
Giesbrecht himself has a charming habit of not always following his own instructions. Sitting in his cluttered university lab one afternoon last April, dressed in black polyester pants and a black pullover like a casual-Friday ninja warrior, he places a finger beneath his cheekbone and points out a small spot of blackened flesh. He’d felt the exposed triangle of skin begin to freeze during his Lake Winnipeg trek, but pressed on anyway. “I shouldn’t have tried to be a hero,” he says sheepishly.
The frostbite will eventually fade, but such battle scars have become his trademark, a kind of tattoo signifying a new phase in Giesbrecht’s career. “When you meet the world-famous hypothermia expert and his nose and ears are black with frostbite,” jokes Forgey, “well, you know he practices what he preaches.” Giesbrecht has reached the rescuers and trauma doctors and military men, but he knows they are only half the battle. Now he is bringing his message to the general public. His latest goal is to get through to Joe Snowshoe about what to do, and what not to do, when the blizzard hits. “I’m on a campaign to reeducate the entire known universe,” he says.
Which is why, on an ordinary Tuesday, he signs in at the front desk of his university’s pool, changes into his black swim trunks, laces up a pair of Bauer hockey skates, and climbs up onto a diving platform. Something a Mountie said after discovering the body of a 65-year-old man in a nearby lake has been bothering him. The victim had been skating and, apparently blinded by the setting sun, he sailed right off the edge of the ice into deep water. “It was the skates that did him in,” the officer told Giesbrecht. But Professor Popsicle has his doubts.
“Check out the latest Canadian Olympic sport,” he calls out. He jumps into the pool with gusto, then toodles about in the water, trying out different strokes, pulling a lap or two. He stops to tread water. “That’s interesting,” he says. “I’m not drowning yet.”
GIESBRECHT’S TACTICS may at times seem slapstick, but the annals of thermoregulation research encompass some of history’s darkest horrors. Although British physician James Currie undertook the first hypothermia studies using volunteers in the late 1700s, the term did not appear in scientific literature until 1886. And a half-century later, the still-budding field would be swept into the moral abyss of the Holocaust.
In 1942 and 1943, in an effort to determine the rescue time frames for Luftwaffe pilots shot down in the North Sea, Nazi doctor Sigmund Rascher supervised the murder of as many as 90 people imprisoned at Dachau by having them immersed in freezing water and then recording their vital signs as they perished. Some were kept in the tubs until they could no longer be revived; others were first chilled and then plunged into scalding water.
Much of Rascher’s data was destroyed before the Allies could recover it. But in 1946, Leo Alexander, a U.S. psychologist and consultant to the American Chief of Counsel for War Crimes—a federal department established to prosecute Germans at the Nuremberg Trials—wrote up what remained in an intelligence summary now known as the Alexander Report. For decades it formed an indelible part of physiology’s body of knowledge. But that changed in 1989, when an international group of about 60 researchers, physicians, and students met in Minneapolis with representatives from Jewish organizations to discuss the ethics of citing the Dachau data in scientific research. Though the attendees did not publicly announce any conclusions, a New England Journal of Medicine paper published the following year determined that Rascher’s data “cannot advance science or save human lives.” To this day, by unspoken consensus, many scientists will not reference the Alexander Report.
Giesbrecht, who at the time was only just starting to publish his own papers, calls the Nazi experiments “horrible” and flawed by poor methodology. (Apart from being motivated by sadism and ethnic hatred, Rascher’s procedures were far from scientific.) But he insists on his right to refer to them if necessary, and did so in a 1994 study of body-to-body rewarming. “I don’t write based on the data,” he says. “I just say [the Nazis] did it, they should be shot for it, and we’re redoing it.”
After the war, human hypothermia trials did not resume until 1971, when John Hayward, then a physiologist at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, repeatedly dropped his own body temperature to a cautious 94 degrees, and followed that by testing a series of volunteers. In 1985, six years before Hayward retired, Giesbrecht began pursuing a master’s of physical education at the University of Manitoba. His thesis supervisor was Gerry Bristow, a physician at the university hospital who had treated hundreds of hypothermia patients. Bristow, 63, felt there were serious gaps in medicine’s knowledge of the condition and no way to close them with the research methods then in use.
Ninety-five degrees “was felt to be the ‘do not cross’ line with human subjects,” says Bristow, now an associate dean in the school’s Faculty of Medicine. “But how can you learn about hypothermia by stopping cooling there, which by definition isn’t even hypothermic?” He and Giesbrecht decided to cross the line. Bristow had never seen serious heart troubles—the final, and usually fatal, stage of advanced hypothermia—occur above a body-core temperature of 86 degrees. He figured they could safely go to 89.6. Giesbrecht volunteered to go first.
In a way, Giesbrecht was living out a thwarted, slightly wacky teenage dream. Born in Winnipeg, he had learned outdoor skills from his Swedish grandfather, who spent his winters plying the backwoods of Manitoba as a fur trapper. But life north of the border was seriously lacking in adrenaline for young Gordon. Inspired in part by the 1978 Burt Reynolds movie Hooper—in which the mustachioed one plays an aging stuntman working toward his last big “gag”—Giesbrecht enrolled in a California stunt school at 21. He never got there; a skiing injury ended his Hollywood career before it began. Still, he clearly felt no need to repress his hot-dogging tendencies when it came to intellectual curiosity.
He vividly remembers that day in April 1986 when he first submerged himself in the university’s cold-water tank. “It was unbelievable,” he recalls. “You had to get slowly into eight…degree…water.” (That is, 46 degrees Fahrenheit.) Based on the success of that initial trial—the pair proved that such dunkings were medically safe—and Bristow’s reputation for resuscitating victims of advanced accidental hypothermia, the University of Manitoba’s Committee for Research Involving Human Subjects gave them the green light to drop human volunteers to 91.4 degrees. Amazingly, students were soon lining up to chill out.
Today, Giesbrecht’s office wall is plastered with plaques honoring volunteers who have each gone hypothermic more than ten times, for a mere $64 per dunking. “I never have to advertise,” he says. “People are clamoring to do my experiments.” People like 30-year-old Jeff Froese, an auto-body-shop assistant manager who has gone into the tank on a dozen or so occasions, and holds the record for longest submersion: six and a half hours.
“After that long, your hip flexors get really sore from shivering,” Froese notes. “You’re in this semifetal position. Other than that, the pain didn’t really bother me. Well, the esophageal probe isn’t really that great. And there was no food or drink, because I was wearing an oxygen mask.”
Why on earth do it? “You definitely learn what you can handle,” says Froese.
DESPITE GIESBRECHT’S more or less unblemished safety record, his experiments often make members of the university’s human subjects research committee a little squeamish. “His work draws red flags,” says Dennis Hrycaiko, 56, a former chair of the committee. “But I never had any concerns he couldn’t address.”
To understand why worry hangs in the academic air, you need to know what the body goes through as its internal temperature begins to fall from 98.6 degrees—the “normal” mark on your household thermometer. Once exposure to cold air or water lowers your core to 95, mild hypothermia sets in and the body shivers in an attempt to rewarm itself. As the body temperature drops to 89.6 degrees, the threshold of moderate hypothermia, your speech becomes slurred, motor functions crash, and shivering ceases. You remain conscious all the way down to 82.4 degrees, the realm of severe hypothermia, but at that point, the heart can quite literally stop cold.
Since so few academics are prepared to start down this road, Giesbrecht has claimed numerous research firsts. In his debut experiment with Bristow in 1986, he figured out that in humans, shivering generates up to 3.5 degrees of heat per hour, and suggested that emergency personnel use lighter blankets so they wouldn’t suppress the beneficial reaction. And in 1997, along with now-retired guru John Hayward, Giesbrecht was the first to clinically describe the symptoms of severe hypothermia in humans—crucial knowledge for EMTs. The pair used drugs to suppress shivering in mildly hypothermic subjects, mimicking the final stage before the last good-bye. Giesbrecht, ever the willing guinea pig, pumped himself full of narcotics for that one.
But like all mavericks, Giesbrecht is not without his critics. As recently as five years ago, a number of his peers, particularly in the United Kingdom, challenged his ideas about in-the-field rewarming of victims. They pointed out that his human-study temperature measurements had been taken from probes snaked down the esophagus, and that Giesbrecht’s data conflicted with heart-temperature readings taken during animal tests. In 1998, believing that incorrect rescue protocols were costing lives, Giesbrecht underwent perhaps the most dangerous procedure of his career. He poked a catheter into a vein in his arm and carefully pushed it through his circulatory system to take a reading from inside his own beating heart. Then he went hypothermic and, risking cardiac arrest, showed that in humans, heart and esophageal temperatures mirror each other exactly. “That really silenced my critics,” he says.
Well, not all of them. “That was only one study,” counters Michael Tipton, a 43-year-old professor of human and applied physiology at the University of Portsmouth, England. “The mass of animal studies still show a difference between heart and esophageal temperatures.” Sticking with the animal data, Tipton argues that “the jury is still out on rewarming.”
A few thermoregulation scientists and physicians feel that Giesbrecht’s experiments may be bruising the margins of prudent research. Giesbrecht admits it’s not all fun and games; one test subject fainted from hyperventilating, while another chipped a tooth from shivering. But he calls his work “brutal, not dangerous.” Most of his colleagues seem to agree. “All these studies are approved by review boards. They may be uncomfortable, but he’s not taking anyone to body-core temperatures that are dangerous,” says Colin Grissom, 42, a physician at the LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City and an avalanche-burial researcher.
Giesbrecht avoids bragging about his exploits, but he makes sure all his colleagues know what he’s up to. He copies and sends out videos of his gonzo field demonstrations (often, it must be said, upon request). “He sends me photos of himself way out there, wandering where Jesus left his sandals,” says Robert Vosskuhler, a clinical vice-president for Augustine Medical, the makers of a forced-air rewarming device called the Bair Hugger, for whom Giesbrecht has done consulting work.
Sometimes his aggressively knowledgeable personal style can rub folks the wrong way. “He’s very smart, but he has that scientist’s arrogance,” says one member of the Lake Winnipeg expedition. “He’s always telling you what to do—how to cook, how to put up your tent,” says another. “But the annoying thing is, he’s always right.”
SCIENTISTS ARE BY definition highly rational beings who pursue truths supported by hard data. But Giesbrecht’s headlong rush into the mysteries of the deep freeze is motivated by something very rarely found in science: God. Giesbrecht, his wife, Debra, and the couple’s two teenage daughters are devout born-again Christians, members of the Immanuel Pentecostal Church. Some ten million Americans call themselves Pentecostals of one kind or another, and the faith is best known for promoting the practice of speaking in tongues. Pentecostals also believe in divine healing, but Giesbrecht understands that God is not prone to miraculously saving some schmo in a snowbank. Miracles are, by their nature, rare, he says. “For instance, there are a few hypothermia cases—like that girl in Regina who went down to 13 degrees [Celsius] and lived—that people say are miracles,” he says. “I’m not convinced.” As an exercise in balancing the scientific side of his brain with his faith, Giesbrecht is collaborating with a minister to write, over the next couple of years, a book about miraculous healing. His aim is to determine which cases cannot be scientifically explained and to debunk the others. “I plan to play devil’s advocate,” he says.
Giesbrecht is happy to talk about religion, though he worries about being portrayed as a freak. “It’s not like we’re throwing snakes on the ground like they might in Texas,” he says. Sitting with Debra, a peppy 40-year-old blonde, at a grill table in their favorite Japanese steak house, he debates the theory that Christ was a vegetarian.
“It’s not like he’s alive today for us to ask him,” concludes Gordon, between bites of beef. Debra looks surprised.
“Gord, remember, Jesus lives,” she chides gently.
“Of course!” Giesbrecht sputters. He may keep Christ on the front burner—posted on the wall of his lab is a sign that reads, THE FEAR OF THE LORD IS THE BEGINNING OF KNOWLEDGE—but adventure and experiments-cum-stunts are also important, and can be distracting at times. His wife isn’t worried, though. “I know he’s careful,” she says. Her friends, however, aren’t so sure. “They say, ‘Don’t you think he’s crazy?’ ”
“I hate it when people say that,” Giesbrecht announces.
“But Gord,” says Debra, “it’s not what normal people do, is it?”
It isn’t. But Giesbrecht is not about to give up his research or his crusade. In the future he hopes to turn his attention to “tree wells,” pits that form in deep snowpack beneath evergreens. These holes have been killing snowboarders, who can ride into them and suffocate. And he’s fixated on “ice masks,” which quickly form over the faces of buried avalanche victims, cutting off access to the precious oxygen suspended in the snow around them. Someday he hopes to collaborate with Utah-based researcher Colin Grissom, who helped develop the AvaLung, an under-snow breathing device made by Salt Lake CityÐbased Black Diamond Equipment for backcountry snow mavens.
Giesbrecht’s to-do list is endless, because the war against cold is dangerous and protracted, and human beings are frail. His dream experiment is a 65-day crossing of either the North or the South Pole, with full metabolic tests throughout. “I would want to get to the point where the body is well and truly falling apart,” he says. “When we did 19 days [on Lake Winnipeg], we could have turned around and done it again. After 65 days you’re not so chipper.”
But for now, he’s focusing on a 400-mile trek across the Canadian high Arctic with a to-be-determined colleague. He will start, perhaps, in the village of Resolute, about 400 miles shy of the magnetic pole, and wander onto the frozen Arctic Ocean in the general direction of Baffin Island. It will assuredly be colder than any trip Giesbrecht has done before. So what is he going to test?
“Us,” he says.