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In medicine, as in many other endeavors, correctly assessing the problem is the biggest part of finding the solution. If you can diagnose the patient correctly, you’re halfway to a solution. If you can’t, you’re whistling in the dark.

Such was the case in Rochester, New York at the 1985 Lilac 10K. Fairly early on among the finishers, a runner crossed the finish line, and promptly collapsed, falling forward onto his face. The paramedics on the scene, believing him to have tripped, and thinking his unresponsiveness was due to facial trauma, loaded him into the ambulance and took him to the local emergency room.

But shortly after the ambulance left, another runner crossed the finish line and collapsed.

Fortunately for the second runner, a doctor had just finished the race as well. Dr. Schiffer recognized the symptoms immediately as heat stroke. Heat stroke, which can be deadly, is caused by an extreme rise in body temperature. It is common following high exertion in hot conditions, but is rare in Rochester, where the local joke is “Ten months of winter, and two months of bad skiing weather.” Unfortunately for the runners, the day of the marathon was unseasonably warm and muggy, something the local runners were not acclimated to.

Dr. Schiffer recognized the ailment, but the ambulance and medical equipment were gone with the first runner. So the ex-marine commandeered a Popsicle-cart that was selling to the bystanders and packed the prostrate runner in Popsicles. This successfully lowered the man’s temperature, and prevented possible disaster. A third stricken runner, a woman, collapsed shortly thereafter, and was again treated by Dr. Schiffer using his improvised methods.

Meanwhile the first runner fared far less well. The emergency room personnel, continuing on the presumption of trauma, ran their patient through a CAT-scan checking for head injuries, and then sent him up to the ICU. By the time the emergency room intern arrived on the scene and suggested taking the man’s temperature, it was too late, and the patient died shortly thereafter. Local papers blamed the hapless intern, and he ended up leaving the internship program.

Oddly enough, this is not the only time Popsicles have been used for emergency treatment for heat stroke. In his book Zoo Vets, David Taylor, DVM relates an incident involving a whale he was escorting. The transport truck did not have adequate cooling, and the whale was overheating rapidly under its thick insulating blubber. Unable to find a sufficient quantity of ice, the vet resorted to frozen treats, and the whale arrived at its destination swimming in an odd sea of juice with floating sticks, but healthy and whole.

Which goes to show, when emergency manuals caution that Popsicles are not adequate treatment for heat-related ailments, they simply aren’t thinking of them in the right way.