August 14, 2005

How Hot Was It?

Record heat all across the nation this weekend, especially on the east coast. In fact, it was so hot in Baltimore, Rafael Palmeiro [baseball player recently suspended for using steroids] switched to injecting himself with Freon.

Jay Leno, from his nightly monologue
Tonight Show, August 8, 2005

It was SO HOT yesterday I had a hard time completing my bi-monthly lawn mowing. Yes, that lawn. The temperature in Washington peaked at about 101º F (37.5º C). The humidity (as in “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”) in our DC swamp made the temperature feel closer to 110. Add to this the region experienced its first “code red” air quality day for the year and you’ve got the best excuse to stay inside and watch anything on TV (even steroid-enhanced baseball).

Last week in this heat James C. McBride, a DC police officer drank too much water while training to use a bicycle on patrol and died of hyponatremia. Hyponatremia, also known as “water intoxication,” is the opposite of dehydration. Your body has too much water —so much that your body can’t get rid of it fast enough.

Many years ago when I was a mailman I suddenly found myself in a similar situation. Of course, at the time I had no idea what was happening to me. I was delivering mail in the San Fernando Valley in the middle of the summer. I was a 19-year-old college student spending my semester break as a “Summer Replacement” for the U.S. Postal Service.

It was 106 that day and I had a full load of mail. I was thirsty from the start. My mouth was dry no matter how much liquid I consumed. This was a time before sports drinks like Gatorade and I was drinking combos of water and Coke. So I kept drinking. Silly me. About 11 am I noticed my stomach would slosh when I shook it. I thought that was pretty strange, but I kept on drinking.

As a Summer Replacement I took over the routes of the regulars when they went on vacation. I had had this route before and knew what to expect: no rabid dogs today and no tree-lined streets to find some shaded relief.

When I got to that big apartment complex I was feeling none too good. But all the old folks were diligently waiting by their group mailbox for their daily delivery. I was feeling so bad I handed the bundles of letters I had put together earlier that morning to the nearest octogenarian and said, “Here, you deliver it.”

It was not my finest hour as a letter carrier. But I had no other choice. I sat down on the front steps with my head between my knees in that official “I am sick” pose.

I knew I couldn’t go on. I was trying to keep my dignity intact by keeping what I had in my stomach just where it was. This was not fun. I asked someone if I could use their phone to call my supervisor. They sent a replacement to finish the route and I slowly made my way back to the post office.

They had a cot waiting for me. I laid down for hour until I could muster enough energy to walk back to my car and go home. My first car: a 1959 Mercury. I walked out of the office and there before me was that soon-to-be classic with a flat tire. Could it get any worse?

I opened the trunk, got the jack and spare and in that heat began to change the tire myself. All of a sudden, I felt it coming. I made my way back to the front seat to stave it off. But just as I placed my body on that hot vinyl I began to erupt. Luckily, the front door was still open and I honorably spilled my guts on the street, sparing my classic’s interior.

I walked back inside to call the Automobile Club. But I only had my mother’s AAA card and they refused to honor it. When faced with this dire situation deep inside of me came my second eruption of the day: a rocket aimed smack at that AAA dispatcher: “I am sick. Very sick. I must get to the hospital immediately. If you don’t come out here and change this tire you will be responsible!” I just wanted to go home. But I knew what I had to say in order to do so. They came pronto.

When I entered the house my mother immediately called the doctor. This was a time when doctors actually made house calls. I was in bed when he came by to deliver his prognosis. “You are water intoxicated.” He didn’t tell me what that meant but it sounded pretty weird. “Stay in bed and drink only one ounce of water an hour for the next day.”

When I finished mowing yesterday I remembered this story. No sloshing this time but much more aware of the dangers of extremely hot days. I came in to the luxury of air conditioning and slowly, very slowly starting drinking some orange juice. I sat down and watched a few innings of baseball before taking a nice cool shower.

I wish I’d kept that ‘59 Merc.

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