February 6, 2009
By Mark Ferguson
With a habit of jumping into freezing cold water during his experiments, the world's foremost expert on hypothermia, Gordon Giesbrecht, has entertained a few nicknames over the years.
Reader's Digest calls the thermophysiologist and president of Horizon College and Seminary (a U of S-affiliated college) 'Dr. Cool' in an article from 2005. But it was the nickname 'Professor Popsicle' from an Outside magazine article in 2003 that really stuck with Giesbrecht.
Photo by Mark Ferguson
The news of Professor Popsicle—the man who voluntarily exposes himself to sub-zero temperatures to test human response to hypothermia—reached the writers of the Tonight Show with David Lettermen shortly after the Outside article was printed and Giesbrecht was asked to conduct an experiment live on the show.
Although Giesbrecht has submerged himself in near-freezing water for an hour in the laboratory, the experiment on the Tonight Show lasted 17 minutes in an outdoor tank placed on the street next to the studio in New York City.
“They hauled in a five-ton trunk full of ice,” he said. “I had the headset tucked up under my toque… I spoke to Dave about five times throughout the show. The whole idea was to show the experiment from start to finish.”
After stepping out of the icy tub, Giesbrecht recalls being served hot tea by Sarah Jessica Parker while he warmed up, watching Nelly Furtado perform, and even ending the show sitting next to Lettermen himself.
“The pressure was high with six million people watching,” said Giesbrecht. “It was a remarkable experience.”
The best apart about the whole thing, he said, “…was celebrating my wife's birthday the same day in New York City.”
Giesbrecht says his fascination with hypothermia began while working as a guide in the Rocky Mountains. He studied extreme weather response in the human body throughout university and since then he's even given himself hypothermia about 40 times in the process of his experiments.
His advice for dealing with hypothermia is not only ground breaking, but practical, including dispelling the myth that a hypothermic body should not be warmed before it is transported to the hospital. He advises that “any source of heat can only be beneficial.”
In his book Hypothermia, Frostbite, and other Cold Injuries (co-authored by James A. Wilkerson), Giesbrecht preaches the importance of wearing a flotation snowmobile suit, the necessity of breathing under control (so you don't take a big gulp of water) if you fall through the ice, and how trying to use a cell-phone could be deadly if your car becomes submerged.
Giesbrecht continues to teach the public about hypothermia and survival techniques in extreme weather and even offers a cold-water boot camp.
“The most important thing,” said Professor Popsicle, “is not to panic.”