Rulon Gardner wrestling at the 2004 Olympics

Rulon Gardner (in blue) wrestling at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, two years after a dangerous bout with frostbite.

by James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

Relatively speaking, losing just one toe and a couple of toe tips was pretty much a best-case scenario for Rulon Gardner. He could have lost his entire foot—and some people would have in the same situation.

As I talked about Tuesday, the Olympic gold-medal wrestler survived being stranded on a mountainside for seventeen hours in 2002. His right shoe was frozen to his foot. I imagine the tissue was gray or white and hard to the touch, frozen with severe frostbite. But Rulon did a few things that saved his foot—things anyone in the same situation could do, high-level athlete or average joe.

1. He stayed off his feet. He was lost, but he didn’t wander. The not walking helped prevent further damage. With frostbite, you have to treat the frozen tissue gently. No rubbing. No walking even, unless it’s to save your life.

2. He didn’t rewarm his feet too soon. Apparently, he didn’t built a fire. I’m not advocating that. A warm fire could save your life from hypothermia, but the fact is, until you are sure of no refreezing, you shouldn’t rewarm the frozen tissue. If it refreezes, it’s sure to die. Just cover the area loosely to protect it. You should rewarm only if you expect transfer to a medical facility within two hours and you can keep the area warm enough that it won’t refreeze.

3. He was flown to a medical facility. There, he:

  • was treated for his most immediate threat to life–hypothermia.
  • had regular and sterile debridements (peeling away of the dead tissue, which gives the living tissue a better chance for survival).
  • received IV antibiotics.
  • had hyperbaric oxygen and other treatments that aid in wound healing.
  • had skin grafts.

Hence the value of getting to a facility that can provide this as soon as possible. Next post, I’ll give you some tips to use if you can’t get to a facility.