Iowa college students know to expect a brisk winter every year. But for senior Mario Garcia, brisk winter took on a new meaning after a curious diagnosis this past June.
Garcia, a Colorado native, has cold urticaria, an allergy to cold temperatures. Whether it be cold water, air, or even a snowball on bare skin, Garcia runs the risk of an allergic reaction.
He first noticed this unusual condition while working at Advanced Wilderness First-Aid.
“I went to the restroom and washed my hands, and on my way back, I felt my hands get red and itchy,” Garcia said. “They kind of hurt and swelled up, and I couldn’t bend my fingers all the way because they were all swollen.”
The reaction went away after an hour, and he assumed he was allergic to the soap.
After a few more minor reactions on his hands, the worst reaction almost killed him. While training to be a wilderness trip leader in Canada, Garcia volunteered to flip his canoe to practice canoe rescues.
All went as planned until he and his partner were rowing back to shore.
“When we got back in the canoe, I could feel I was getting really lightheaded, and my skin was really red. I looked badly sunburnt,” Garcia said. “I could feel my lungs start to constrict and my throat start to close up.”
When Garcia reached shore, his co-workers removed his wet shirt, wrapped him in blankets, and fed him hot chocolate and sugar to help him recover. Garcia blacked out twice and lost his hearing for a few minutes, and the others were startled to see the extent of the reaction.
“They said they looked at my back and they could see the outline of my lungs in white like two white spots that mirrored each other,” Garcia said. “It was just really, really bad.”
It took nearly two and a half hours for him to recover due to the exhaustion and weakness that had flooded his body.
The following Monday, a visit to the doctor yielded a diagnosis of cold urticaria. A doctor gave him an EpiPen and instructions for combating the condition, and Garcia is now learning to adapt as an Iowa winter bears down.
Layering in the standard coat, hat, gloves and pants is one defense. Another is having an accountability partner, so to speak.
“If I’m walking somewhere alone, like to class or something, I’ll have someone that I’ll text to say that I made it to my destination,” Garcia said. “And if I don’t, then they’ll need to go look for me so I’m not suffocating.”
The senior does his best to put a humorous twist on this new way of life. One tweet he posted was, “I really don’t want it to snow at all. #I’mTooYoungToDie,” and when asked to go out and be active in the cold, his response is simple and funny.
“People say, ‘Oh let’s go do that!’ and I just respond with, ‘Uh I can’t. I’ll die,’” said Garcia. “It’s all about staying creative with this.”
As of now, it seems cold urticaria will be with Garcia for the rest of his life, but the long-term adjustments might not be all bad.
“I was thinking of living in Puerto Rico for the warmth so I don’t have to worry about it,” Garcia said.