Just Chillin’

AT DEFENCE RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT CANADA, a military laboratory in Toronto, a doctor is examining an electrocardiogram of my heart’s performance. The peaks and valleys are consistent; smooth and jagged where they should be. Flipping the page, though, he notes my blood pressure is a little high. Perhaps I’m apprehensive, he suggests. Pressing a stethoscope to my back, he listens intently as I breathe. He shines a light in my eyes, in my ears, down my throat. When he asks, I touch my toes, perform a deep knee bend. I sit on the paper-covered gurney and react with a kick when he taps my knees. He reads the protocol for the experiment soon to be performed on me and he nods, ticking the paper with his pen, uh-huh, uh-huh. Then he flips through the screening booklet I filled out earlier. He scans the dozens of probing questions regarding my medical history, looking for checkmarks in the boxes labelled “do have” and “have had.” He gets to the last page, reads it and says, “I’m glad it’s you instead of me.” Signing the form, he hands it back and I’m led by a technician through a maze of hallways toward Chamber No. 3.

The exposure is a go.

Michel Ducharme is a thermal physiologist, which means he searches for methods to improve the way humans protect themselves from extremes of temperature. Ducharme has arranged for me to feel what it’s like to be cold. Of course, like most Canadians, I’ve been cold before, but not cold. One January night in the Yukon I experienced minus 47, so I know what it’s like to be in the cold, but thanks to high-tech clothing, I’ve never been truly, drastically cold. Ducharme plans to correct this situation by eliminating any kind of meaningful protection. The only pieces of clothing I will be permitted to wear, besides shoes and socks, are a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Chamber No. 3 has been chilled to 0 degrees Celsius, the freezing point of water (or the average temperature in Ottawa in mid-March). I will remain inside, without moving, for one hour. Then, a fan will be turned on and pointed at me, simulating a 20 km/h wind (creating a wind chill factor, according to the traditional wind-chill measure, of minus 9). I will face the fan, again without moving, for another hour. At the end of the second hour, with the fan still going, water will be sprayed on my face and on my chest, lowering the effective temperature to minus 18. “At each stage, the difference will be dramatic,” Ducharme says with perfect certainty. “You will feel quite cold.” Indeed, Ducharme will know exactly how cold I am. Robert Limmer, a technician overseeing the experiment, has taped temperature-sensing electrodes to my forehead, cheek, neck, arm, thigh and calf. These will measure my skin temperature. More important, however, is my core temperature. There is only one practical way to obtain this measurement and it is not, unfortunately, by placing a thermometer under my tongue. Limmer hands me a package containing a 15-cm-long probe. He gives explicit instructions. “Don’t use too much of the lubricant. Easy in also means easy out.” I consider his advice thoughtfully, but nevertheless fail to see the disadvantage. Limmer, perhaps sensing this, adds, “We can’t have it coming out mid-way through the experiment.” I head to the change room to perform the procedure as directed. I return with a wire protruding from the back of my shorts.

“Everything go OK?” Limmer asks.

“Yes,” I say, looking straight ahead. “Great. Thanks.” Limmer takes the free end of the wire and plugs it into a digital thermometer. “Your core temperature is 37.6,” he tells me. He notes this on a log sheet attached to a clipboard. “But,” he says in a cheery way as we walk toward the chamber, “not for long.”

CHAMBER NO. 3 IS A SMALL ROOM with a door that looks like the kind you see on meat lockers. Inside the stark, utilitarian cell, the only objects are a pair of  heavy-duty fans, a small table and a blue lawn chair. At a desk in the anteroom beside the chamber, Debbie Kerrigan Brown, another technician helping with the exposure, explains that I will repeatedly perform two different tests to gauge my reaction to the cold. The first is called the Purdue Pegboard Test, a kind of board game designed to measure manual dexterity. The idea is to fit a metal peg into a hole, then to place a washer over top of it, then a tube, then another washer. All the pieces are small and finicky. Each correct placement counts for a single point, and I have one minute to see how many pieces I can put into place. The second test is called a random letter search. This is meant to monitor my cognitive skills. I have to scan lines of random letters on a sheet of paper and count the number of times a specific letter appears. (The target letter changes for every sheet.) I will be timed during this test as well. Kerrigan Brown clocks me during a trial run. The letters are small and packed closely together. It takes me more than four minutes to complete one page. In addition to the many wires already attached to my body, Limmer is now affixing a heart-rate monitor to my chest. Two minutes to go.

“Are you ready?” he asks. I say I am, but really I have no idea. Limmer tells me to pick up all the gear attached to me as he and Kerrigan Brown don their winter jackets. Just before he opens the freezer door, Limmer remembers something and turns to Ducharme. “Michel, for the last part, when we spray the water, did you want it to be cold?” Ducharme responds the way I might if someone asked me whether I wanted a new car and a lifetime supply of free gasoline. “Oh yeah, absolutely!” Limmer grabs a water-filled spray bottle from the counter and we head into the chamber. The photographer and his assistant are inside, waiting for me. The assistant has just recently found out I volunteered for the procedure without even being in the military. Now, wearing his puffy down jacket, he stands near the door and smiles at me weakly. He truly has no idea why I’m doing this. It will soon become obvious to me that I don’t, either. I sit down in the lawn chair and the clock starts ticking.

20 minutes 

I have started to shiver. If I breathe slowly, however, I can stop the shivering quite easily. My fingers are starting to get cold, as well as the backs of my hands. But I don’t have any goosebumps yet. The shiver is mostly in my legs. Limmer notices. “You can’t start shivering yet,” he says. “We’ve hardly even begun.” The odd thing is, unlike my legs and hands, my head and face feel fine. By this time, I was expecting to feel a lot colder.

45 minutes 

The seconds are ticking more slowly now. The cognitive tests are becoming much more tedious. I spot a word in the random letters—sex—and this throws me off. My nose is running. Limmer hands me a box of Kleenex. My hands are whitish and splotchy and heavily wrinkled. Ducharme tells me the sensors in my skin have released calcium and neurotransmitters, signaling my brain to constrict capillaries and venules (small veins). This will increase the insulative properties of my tissues while preserving the warmth of my blood by keeping it away from the surface. I’m also shivering steadily now, my instinctual self hoping that reflexive movement will produce enough heat to stave off a temperature drop in my core. So far it’s working quite well — my core temperature has actually risen a 10th of a degree. A group of men wearing fatigues, having discovered an experiment is underway in the chamber, have dropped by the anteroom. They take turns peering at me through the window. I sit in my chair, shivering while they point and smile.

61 minutes 

Limmer turns the fan on and the blast of wind hits me like a bus. This, I think to myself, is fantastically stupid. It’s so stupid I have to laugh. I clown around by leaning back on the lawn chair and crossing my legs, as if taking in a warm Caribbean breeze. It gets a chuckle, but I can’t keep this up for long. I now realize there is no way I can last another hour. No way. I lean forward in my chair and hug myself, trying to bury my hands in my armpits, intuitively keeping my vital organs warm. (The photographer will later tell me that at this moment he couldn’t watch and had to leave the room.) The wind stings my already cold skin. A chart that Ducharme showed me earlier predicts the wind chill, by his calculation, at minus 5 degrees C. Two years ago, he led a team of scientists in a re-evaluation of the wind chill factor. The previous formula measured the effect of wind on a plastic vial full of water, but Ducharme studied the effect of wind on human tissues and found it quite different. The insulative properties of skin were underestimated in the first wind chill factors, and Ducharme’s chart, the new standard, is less severe. He explains that wind affects thermal comfort because the skin is constantly warming a thin layer of air, and wind blows that layer of warm air away, bombarding the skin with a constant supply of new, cold air. It’s one thing to talk about it, however, and another to feel it.

87 minutes 

Despite the presence of people I hardly know, I have apparently lost all sense of decorum. Into my microphone I stammer out the following entry: “Twenty-six minutes into the fucking fan and it’s fucking freezing in here. My hands are fucking fucked.” Limmer tells me the experiment is over whenever I say so, that I can just get up and walk out anytime. I acknowledge with a nod and a grunt. I am no longer shivering; I’m shaking uncontrollably. Kerrigan Brown brings me a letter-search test. I can barely hold a pen. My answers look as though I wrote them with my foot. Also, at this point I couldn’t care less how many I get wrong, so I just plow through. When it’s time for the Purdue test, I find I can’t feel the pieces between my thumb and finger. It takes both hands to pick up a washer. While my dexterity score dropped only 6.5 per cent in the first hour, it has by now dropped almost 50 per cent. The fingers on my right hand, particularly, no longer seem to be under my control. Ducharme comes into the room and asks me how I feel. I decide to be funny and tell him, “I thought you said I was going to be cold!” He smiles, but adds that I have the right attitude. “That’s very important when dealing with cold stress,” he says. “It can actually make a physiological difference.” This gets me thinking: fighting cold is actually a state of mind. I try to stop shaking. I breathe deeply and concentrate, and, sure enough, my body calms down and I’m still. Then, a few moments later, the shiver creeps back in, slowly, like a sneeze that just won’t go away. Pretty soon, I’m shaking just as violently as before. Still, although I’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour and a half, my heart rate remains steady at 106 beats per minute.

100 minutes

I am imagining myself in a field of snow. My plane has crashed. I have no warm clothes. I’m injured, I can’t move very well, and shelter is a long way off. It’s a frightening thought. Right now, I can stand up and walk out of here. I know that. But if things were different, I don’t know what I would do. I surely wouldn’t have long to think about it, because I feel as though I don’t have a lot left in me. In the past hour and 40 minutes my skin temperature has dropped 22.4 degrees and my cheek now registers 12.8 degrees C. Though my body is still jerking spasmodically, I’m slowly losing the battle. My core temperature, which stayed in a normal range for the entire first hour, is also dropping steadily, and now that it’s reached 36.6, I am officially hypothermic. I look at the clock; it seems that time is also freezing, slowing down. Each minute ticks by like an hour. The wind is truly wretched. Why am I doing this? I take it second by second, willing myself to hold on. Ducharme has asked everyone to leave the room, and now I am alone in the cold. I grit my teeth and rock in my chair. Tick. Tock. I grit my teeth harder. Tick… I swear at the wind, tense my neck, curl my fingers into tight fists.. .tock.

120 minutes

It’s time for the water to be sprayed on my face and chest. The exposure is almost over now and that’s what keeps me going. Limmer asks me whether I’m ready. I tell him to bring it on. He starts spraying the water into the fan and the moving air delivers it in a fine mist that coats my entire upper half. Instantly, the cold penetrates my face, my forehead especially, and it is so painful I feel disoriented. The intensity of cold has jumped dramatically, just as Ducharme promised. Every second is torture, and now it’s no longer even remotely funny. My temperatures, both skin and core, start to plummet. Limmer asks me whether I’ve had enough, but I don’t know what to tell him. Ducharme finally steps in and gives me an out. “You probably have a good idea by now, Mike.” I agree with him. I stand up. Limmer and Ducharme grab me by my arms, and on shaky legs I walk out the door. One hundred and 27 minutes after it began, the exposure is over.

OUTSIDE THE CHAMBER, Limmer rips the electrodes off my skin so I can head for the hot tub. Ducharme stands nearby, smiling. “Good job, Mike, you’re a real fighter,” he says. I can’t help but smile, even though I’m not sure what he means. As we walk down the hallway to a relief I can hardly imagine, I ask him where, specifically, he thinks I excelled. He thinks about it for a second. “Well,” he says, seemingly impressed, “you did a lot of shivering.”