Cold climates call for extra care

by • December 22, 2017 • HighlightsComments (0)1141

Reynaud’s is no joke: There’s nothing wimpy about taking care of yourself

I’m an Alaskan kid. Even at 27, I still feel like an Alaska kid. The weather cools and the snow falls and I can’t help but get that flutter of excitement as flakes tumble to the ground. It’s time to play.

But, this year, like every year since I can remember, I’ll bundle my hands and feet a little more than my peers. And, though I’ll have hand warmers and expedition-weight mitts, I’ll succumb to the “screaming barfies” far quicker than my playmates.

This is nothing new. As a plucky 10 year old, I’d spend summers roaming the neighborhood with friends, jumping through the sprinklers in the overcast Alaska climate. Though we’d all get a case of the shivers, my friends would gawk at my lips and fingernails, completely blue with cold. My fingers looked like little Popsicle sticks painted pure white.

As a tomboy snowboarder at age 14, I’d fly over the slopes at Alyeska with my crew. But, as soon as we’d take our seats on the lift, my feet would sting and go numb. I’d cringe and try to act like everything was fine. After all, my friends weren’t cold. I was just being a wimp.

Sarah Zerkel stays bundled from head to toe to keep symptoms of Reynaud’s at bay.
Courtesy Sarah Zerkel

Last December, I had my first experience with ice climbing. We hiked out to Eklutna on a particularly clear, cold day. I watched my climbing partners scurry up and down the route, both of whom had warmed up with the effort of climbing and dropped their outer puffy layers. As I waited my turn, I bravely ensured their puffies were not lost to the breeze by draping them on my sedentary, shivering body.

When my turn came, I was ready: mitt shell over liner glove and giant puffy on. This wall of ice was not going to get to me. About five minutes and one quarter of the way up, I couldn’t take it anymore. I sat, crampons dug into the ice, swinging my arms, scream-whispering expletives and fighting nausea. I was just being a wimp I told myself.

Or was I?

This July I was at the doctor for a routine check-up when I mentioned my symptoms. Fresh off climbing Denali, they were at the front of my mind. Without hesitation, she replied, “You have Raynaud’s.” That was that. No testing, no hemming, no hawing. Just a name for what I had. I was far from devastated. So I get a little colder than some people. Big deal. Though I did have to hold back an audible laugh when she said the best way to deal with my symptoms was to stay out of the cold.

Put simply, Raynaud’s is a disease in which blood vessels in one’s extremities have reduced circulation, causing these small vessels found in hands, feet, noses, etc. to spasm causing a painful sensation — an “attack” as some put it — especially in the cold.

And while, the most commonly cited treatment for Raynaud’s is limited exposure to cold, for an Alaskan outdoor enthusiast, it’s not the most feasible. But, because Raynaud’s sufferers are more likely to get frostbite and other cold injuries, I’ll certainly be taking steps to protect myself this winter — and I won’t be the only one. According to the Raynaud’s Association, almost 28 million Americans experience Raynaud’s.

So, what’s a mal-circulated outdoor enthusiast to do? Well, I’m no doctor, but I’ll be continuing to learn more about my body and finding ways to balance the winter sports I love with the care and attention needed to stay healthy. There’s a lot to learn, but I’m up for the challenge. After all, I’m no wimp.

If you think you may have Raynaud’s, check with your doctor and visit Raynauds.org for more information and support.

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