The importance of dressing for the weather: Mom's cautionary tale of teen's frostbitten hands

Like the parents of so many teens, Connie Gagan would badger her 16-year-old daughter to dress properly before heading out into the cold.

Then last week, the Spruce Grove teen suffered excruciating frostbite to her hands after walking 45 minutes in –25 C temperatures without mitts or gloves, and Gagan has taken to social media to remind other parents of the importance of the battle.

"We just have to keep trying," said Connie Gagan. "We beat our heads against the brick wall, over and over and over. The message doesn't always get through but sometimes, it just does." 

Last Friday, her daughter finished an exam early and decided not to wait an hour for her ride, Gagan said. So she walked  home, carrying her binder home in her bare hands. 

Gagan said when her daughter got home, the pain from the frostbite kicked in. 

"I'm at work and she calls me, hysterical, because of the tremendous pain from when your hands start to thaw," she said. 

"She was crying, 'It just hurts mom, it just hurts so bad, mom,' and it's very difficult as a parent to see your child in that kind of pain. It was tough." 

Blisters, potential nerve damage

Gagan said they immediately went to a doctor and were instructed to soak her daughter's hands in warm water,  every half hour for 12 hours.

The next morning, blisters had formed. The two headed to the hospital emergency room. 

The girl was doing better on Wednesday, though she's still struggling with pain and mobility issues in her right hand, Gagan said. 

Connie Gagan

"We stopped having new blisters, but the existing blisters are still growing so we're not done with those. Now we're dealing with the risk of infection," Gagan said. 

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an emergency room doctor from Calgary, says bad cases of frostbite can have severe consequences. 

"It's freezing the tissues and as they re-warm, they rupture," he said. "So it can hurt nerves, it can damage blood vessels. It can damage tissue, even freeze your bone." 

Symptoms and cures

In frostbite, the exposed skin will at first get cold and red, then it may go numb,  Bhardwaj said.

"That's actually when the bad frostbite is starting to set in," he said. "It can actually go pale and hard, literally like frozen, waxy skin. As it warms up, if it gives you blisters, that's a bad thing." 

Blisters are a signal to head straight to the emergency room, he said.

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If you've got frostbite, avoid rubbing the skin, which can damage the frozen tissue, he said. And definitely don't warm your fingers over a heat register.  

"It can continue to add heat to it, to the point where it actually burns it and you don't feel the burn because you're still numb," he said.  

Soaking frostbitten hands in warm water — about 37 C — should help, he said. "It's going to hurt as it starts to thaw out, so a little bit of ibuprofen can help with that." 

'A wake-up call' 

Gagan says she hopes her story can be a wake-up call for other kids and parents. She wants parents to talk to their kids about dressing appropriately for the cold weather. 

She said it's been an ongoing struggle trying to get her daughter to wear gloves, mitts or a coat in the winter, but the girl  now understands that not dressing for the weather is not a good choice.  

"She doesn't want to make that poor decision again," said Gagan.  

"She's trying to be tough still — she's a teenager, she wants to shrug it off like it's no big deal, but I know it is. I know it's been a wake-up call for her."

Connie Gagan