Education

Injured on ice? University of Iowa emergency room packed

Hospital sees weather-related injuries spiking higher than usual

A student walks Wednesday in front of Danforth Chapel on the University of Iowa campus as snow falls in Iowa City. (Rebe
A student walks Wednesday in front of Danforth Chapel on the University of Iowa campus as snow falls in Iowa City. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Having recently been diagnosed with a condition that can cause lightheadedness, weakness or even blackouts, Molly Monk already feels unsteady when standing up.

Add black ice to the equation and her odds of falling multiply — like on Saturday, when she stepped out of her boyfriend’s Ford Explorer in the driveway of her Cedar Rapids home.

“It didn’t seem like it was icy to me,” Monk, 25, said. But she slipped and hit her head hard, though she ultimately decided not to go to the emergency room.

But plenty of Eastern Iowans have since the triple threat of sleet, snow and bitter gusts swept in last week.

Between Jan. 15 and 20, the University of Iowa emergency department saw 153 patients come through its doors with weather-related injuries, according to Christopher Hogrefe, clinical associate professor of emergency medicine.

On Jan. 15 alone — the day ice closed or delayed schools throughout the region — the UI emergency room treated 45 fall victims, four vehicle crash victims and three other patients with weather-related injuries.

Jan. 19 and 20 brought a total of 26 fall patients through the UI emergency room doors — along with 10 others suffering weather-related ailments, according to university data.

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While January and February typically spur an influx of cold- and ice-involved injuries, the last two weeks have been worse than usual, said Hogrefe, who has been in the emergency department for 12 years.

“There has been a disproportionately high number of folks coming in with these injuries,” he said.

Fall-related injuries — which, on any given day, account for 30 to 40 percent of all trauma cases there — tend to involve broken bones, spine and neck damage, skull fractures, concussions, and even brain bleeds. They can include torn ligaments, muscle pulls, ankle twists and foot fractures, Hogrefe said.

“Lots of people try to stabilize themselves by putting their hands out, and they get wrist, hand or elbow injuries” when they fall, he said, noting specific age groups are not necessarily more susceptible to slips and falls. “Unfortunately gravity doesn’t discriminate.”

UI Health Care specialists do, however, warn people 65 or older to “always” seek care if they fall and hit their head — even if the head injury seems minor, without loss of consciousness or other apparent cognitive repercussions.

“One in five will have a brain bleed requiring surgery,” according to a UI Health Care tip. “And their risk is much higher if they take anticoagulants (blood thinning medication.)”

With more snow and wintry conditions in store for the rest of the week, Hogrefe urged people to avoid injury by — for starters — being aware of their surroundings, below their feet and above their heads.

“We fixate on ice on the ground, but ice falls from buildings, and people need to be aware when they’re walking under overhangs,” he said. “That can lead to significant injuries, too.”

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Hogrefe urged vigilance when getting out of vehicles, and suggested allowing plenty of time to get to a destination. Take slow, cautious steps, he said, and choose appropriate footwear.

“It’s probably not the best time to wear your best pumps out on the sidewalk,” he said. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”

Walk on level surfaces if you can, try to keep your hands empty so you can brace yourself if you fall, and help each other when possible by locking arms for support.

“That’s a good idea because it gives more caution to both parties,” he said.

Monk said she doesn’t have to work at being cautious since her fall.

“I’m super nervous getting out of the car now,” she said. “I’m really scared, actually.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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