Altitude Sickness

The heat of the city and its health consequences

By Brady Crain

I’ve been house sitting in Jersey City for the last few days, and for the next week. I love coming to the city — going to the museums, the culture, the music — except the exhausting roar of tires and air conditioners that is virtually ever present in a New York City summer.

When I left my Killington apartment, the outside temperature was 62 degrees, and when I stepped out of my air conditioned car in Jersey City four hours later, it was 98, with humidity like having a horse breathe in your face.

This led to the revelation of a condition I didn’t really realize I had, heat related edema, or water retention. Despite guzzling water like a fish, I literally stopped peeing. First my legs swelled (as I sat chewing the fat with my old friend in his kitchen), then the joints of my fingers, my hands, and within 36 hours, my torso, and even my lungs and pericardium, and as it was finally receding, the bellies of my muscles.

About 24 hours in I started taking over-the-counter diuretics, drinking lots of water and electrolytes, and reclining as much as I could, availing myself of ice for my back, and cold showers. It was an altogether miserable experience, and if I had still had difficulty breathing on my second morning I would have gone to the hospital.

I have endured only a few sudden temperature changes like this in my life, and looking back, I have had this happen more than I thought. Two times I thought it was related to sunburn on my feet, and once, when I was in Florida for the U.S. Taekwondo championships in 1998 in the summer (it was regularly 110 degrees and the AC was broken in my car), the low urination episode lasted nearly two weeks.

I still remember the moment, in North Carolina at 10 p.m., I hit a thermocline where the temperature dropped 10-15 degrees, and within an hour I was peeing every 15 minutes. I lost four hours of that drive just stopping to go to the bathroom, as my body released water it had held for weeks.

The really unpleasant part of this was that the edema caused swelling in my post surgical lumbar tissues, bringing me back to pre-surgical pain levels. At the recommendation of my surgeon, I have stopped the intake of anti-inflammatories, because they cause kidney problems, and I haven’t had an edema episode since I stopped taking those meds, a decade and a half ago.

I am back to walking and running now. Counterintuitively, running is easier on me than walking (I think this might be because I spend less time upright). The surgeon says that inflammation episodes are normal after surgery, but that I need to get my kidneys and heart checked.

So I am a mile away from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, where there are great paths and boardwalks, a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan, and a bridge to Ellis Island. Ellis Island and the Statue are literally a stone’s throw from New Jersey (you can walk to Ellis on a bridge … who knew?). I mean that literally.  I could swim to either in under six minutes. So while I am not seeing my beautiful mountains every morning, I am within yards of some very beautiful islands, statues, and skyline. And Jersey City itself is up and coming!

I was well enough to shoot back to Killington this past Monday for the first round of the softball playoffs, where we lost to the league-dominating McGrath’s team.  That said, we posted a really strong rally during the game, which made losing much more fun.

Photo by Brady Crain

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