Did you know that a break down as simple as losing your air conditioning in a vehicle can be deadly to a person with a spinal cord injury?
The effects of a spinal cord injury depend on the type and level of injury, and are divided into two categories–complete and incomplete break. You can learn more about the differences between the two types of injuries here. In Tan’s case, he is a C4-C5 incomplete injury. Generally speaking, Tan’s injury means that the two sides of his body are affected differently (his right side is more dominant allowing him to have more control of it than his left side), there is some functioning below the primary level of his injury, and he retains shoulder and bicep control but little to no control at the wrist or hand. Commonly spinal cord injury yields a loss of sensation and motor function, but there can be variation in the loss of other functions that differs from person to person and their injury. These can include an inability to regulate blood pressure, an inability to sweat below the level or point of injury, and an inability to regulate body temperature. In Tan’s case, his injury resulted in all three.
Thermoregulation is the body’s ability to keep its temperature within certain boundaries so that homeostasis, or a state of stability, is kept regardless of the temperature in the surrounding environment–a necessary function to keeping the body’s internal organs healthy and running properly. Sweating is the body’s method of cooling itself off, but if the body absorbs more heat than it can dissipate the consequences can become deadly. It doesn’t take much for the human body to overheat; really it only takes exposure to temperatures above 75 degrees Celsius for longer than a few hours to produce deadly consequences.
On a recent road trip, the air conditioning in our current vehicle went out. The A/C actually went out at the beginning of the summer and we’ve been trying to outrun the heat ever since, making trips as short as possible, limiting them to only ones that are necessary, and making as many of them early morning or evening excursions when the heat is at its lowest. Just before our trip out of town we were able to have the A/C serviced and it was fixed (or so we thought) with some minor repair. The trip up to Atlanta was splendidly cool…the trip home, not so much with outside temperatures in the 90s. Sunday morning we cranked the A/C on to the unwelcome presence of warm air pumping through the vents. We discovered that if parked the A/C would finally turn blessedly cool, but the moment we began driving it was back to pumping warm air into the van. Two hours into driving and Tan had had about all he could handle.
See, without the ability to regulate his core temperature, or the ability to sweat to remain cool, Tan’s body increasingly absorbed heat with no way to dissipate it. Our solution was to pull off at a gas station and purchase a Styrofoam cooler and bag of ice. Aiming the vents down into the cooler and parking the van so the cold air would pump through was the only solution we could think of. It took several stops and several more hours to get home. Something as simply as losing air conditioning is a frustrating and irritating nuisance for anyone, but as Tan’s body temperature rose it was a very real and potentially life threatening event.
As able-bodied people, we take advantage of all the behind the scenes functions that our body performs to keep us alive, but persons with a spinal cord injury often have to rely on technology to compensate for the things that their body can no longer control. The need for a quadriplegic to have not only a reliable but a fully functioning vehicle not in disrepair doesn’t just affect quality of life but life itself; it’s what makes losing the A/C in our vehicle a nuisance for the able-bodied and vitally detrimental to a person with a spinal cord injury.
As for our beast of burden, the van spent the day in the shop. Mechanics were unable to figure out why the A/C stopped pumping cold air and noted that the van had lost a pound and a half of Freon at some point in the trip. Freon replaced and no leaking later they’ve called it a day and closed up shop, so fingers crossed that we won’t have the need for our cooler-and-ice-air-conditioning system again.