An 18-year-old female hiker from the Valley nearly died of heat stroke on the Upper Springs Trail in Fossil Creek last Thursday.
A group of teenage girls had successfully hiked into the springs at Fossil Creek. However, as they were hiking out, at about one mile below the trailhead of the four-mile trail, the 18-year-old victim became distressed and collapsed and became unresponsive. It’s uncertain why she collapsed because the group still had water.
Pine-Strawberry paramedics were dispatched at about 1:30 p.m. Part of the district’s dispatch protocol when responding to Fossil Creek emergencies is for paramedics to call the reporting party on the trail to get more information of the victim’s condition. In this case paramedics had very early information that they were responding to a serious medical emergency and very quickly requested a response from the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad.
When paramedics arrived at the victim’s location, the victim had slipped from apparent heat exhaustion to symptoms of a life-threatening heat stroke condition. The female hiker was still unresponsive and now was convulsing.
Heat stroke occurs when the core body temperature increases to 104 degrees or greater. Once a victim’s condition passes beyond the more common heat exhaustion into heat stroke it quickly becomes a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate cooling (i.e., with ice) and rapid transport to a hospital. High body temperatures also begin to damage brain cells and other organs of the body.
More than 600 deaths from heat stroke occur annually in the United States.
In this case, paramedics were able to use chemical cold packs and poured cooling water on the patient to cool her while bystanders were holding up towels to provide shade.
Paramedics were able to establish an intravenous line and started to get fluids into the victim. They also administered medications to stop the seizures that were occurring.
Because of the inability to rapidly move the victim to an awaiting helicopter, Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris stated, “I believe all of us who were on scene believed at the time we were watching the slow death of a beautiful teenage girl.”
Once the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad members arrived with the Big Wheel litter, the victim was loaded onto the litter and carried uphill to the trailhead. A medical helicopter was waiting and flew the victim to a Valley hospital. She was admitted in critical condition to the hospital’s ICU unit.
When Morris contacted the victim’s father the following day, the father stated his daughter was still in the ICU unit and “doing fair” in her recovery.
Currently, rescue missions on the Upper Springs Trail typically average five to seven hours and require a dozen or more members of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad to complete. It is a slow and difficult process to move a victim in a Big Wheel litter four miles uphill.
Most medical emergencies occur along the bottom mile of the trail.
“In this rescue, the contributing factor to the victim’s survival was she collapsed just a mile below the trailhead and was in a helicopter flying to the Valley in about three hours,” said Morris. “Given her critical condition that day, had she collapsed near the bottom of the trail most medical experts would say she would not have survived a five- to seven-hour rescue event.”
The Upper Springs Trail is really an old dirt road, developed by the Forest Service in the 1960s. When this road was open to rescue vehicles in the past, a typical rescue mission was completed in about 90 minutes. Today, the vast majority of the road can easily accommodate a side-by-side ultra terrain vehicle (UTV), equipped with a patient litter. There are a few sections of the road that need to be widened to allow full passage.
Morris said he and Gila County Sheriff Adam Shepherd have advocated fixing the road to allow rapid response to victims by a side-by-side UTV for five years. On two separate occasions, first in 2015 and again last year, local rescue agencies have offered to fix the road wide enough to allow a UTV to travel the four-mile length of the trail at no cost to the Forest Service. This would reduce the five- to seven-hour rescue period to about 90 minutes, thus, vastly improving any victims’ chances for survival. On both occasions the Forest Service declined the offer.
“The sheriff and I look forward to a future discussion with Tonto National Forest officials on how to create more rapid access to, and more prompt extraction of, victims experiencing serious medical emergencies on the Upper Springs Trail and elsewhere in Fossil Creek,” said Morris.
Chief Gary Morris, Pine-Strawberry Fire Department