Rulon Gardner, 2004 Olympics

American wrestler Rulon Gardner accepts his bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, two years after losing a toe to frostbite. Photo (cropped) courtesy, USA Wrestling.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Rulon Gardner is one megatough dude. He’s a local celebrity here in Colorado (Olympic wresting gold medalist and The Biggest Loser participant). A giant of a guy, he was stranded for something like seventeen hours on the side of a mountain after a snowmobile accident in 2002. You can read his story in Sports Illustrated.

They found him almost dead from hypothermia. His right shoe was frozen to his foot. He survived and is back to competitive wrestling. He lost the tips of both big toes, all of his right middle one, and a lot of skin. But it could have been so much worse. We can learn a lot about frostbite from his experience.

What Most People Get: Mild Frostbite

Most of us who get frostbite get mild frostbite. It’s the most common type even in Alaska. Your fingers or toes get numb, and the skin turns reddish or white or reddish with white splotches. The flesh feels firm to the touch but not hard, not frozen deep. You go inside, warm up. You can have pain and swelling but no skin loss. That’s because the most superficial layer of skin is all that’s frozen. Frostnip falls into this category.

What Rulon Got: Severe Frostbite

Like the mild, severe frostbite most commonly affects the toes and feet. The nose, ears, hands, and fingers run a close second. The deeper tissues are frozen. The skin is gray or white and hard. Severe frostbite damages the fat layer, muscle, sometimes even bone. It can damage the growth plate in children, resulting in a bone deformity. Rewarming causes severe pain, swelling, and large blisters.

Why Rulon Got Severe Frostbite

Obviously the cold was the biggest risk factor for Rulon. The temperature has too be well below freezing. The time outside certainly played a role. But he had other risk factors for frostbite:

  • Most people who get severe frostbite are fatigued. Our body’s not at its most efficient.
  • Hunger. For the same reason as fatigue. Poor nutrition (not his case) is worse.
  • He was trying to make it up a mountain. For some reason, higher altitude is a risk.
  • It was windy.
  • His feet got wet.
  • His core body temperature dropped to 80 F. That’s severe hypothermia and is life-threatening. Never forget to treat the hypothermia that may be associated with severe frostbite. Not only is it a risk factor for frostbite (warm blood concentrates around organs and away from the extremities) but it’s also the most immediate risk for dying.

In my next post, I’ll talk about things that helped limit Rulon’s damage. Things that might help you.