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Sheer perseverance saves man from icy water trauma

Year 1820

Read by Vikki Spencer – Supporter, Royal Humane Society

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William Wilson Cox

In the beginning of January last, about seven o’clock in the evening, at Strand on the Green, near Kew Bridge, an alarm was given, that there was a man in the water.

Three humane and intrepid fellows, Charles Powell, Richard Powell, and John Cooksley, fishermen, immediately put into their boat and pulled towards the spot, which they could not approach nearer than by a distance of ten yards from it, owing to the ice, which had drifted there in considerable abundance.

Active humanity is not easily discouraged; they left their boat, and proceeded, contrary to the advice of the observers on shore, upon the ice, towards the object of their solicitude, who was scarcely discernible, locked in as he was on all sides surrounded by the ice. They found him with just his face and one hand above the surface of the water, retained there not by the active powers of life, but by the pressure of the floating mass about him, and by the rigidity and the angular position of the arm and of the hand, the fingers of which were bent over the edge of a piece of ice.

With great difficulty, and no less danger to themselves, they succeeded, after a considerable time, in their endeavours to extricate the unfortunate man, and bringing him over the ice into their boat-cold, stiff, and inflexible. He was immediately conveyed to the Bull’s Head, Strand on the Green; and Mr. W.W. Cox, Surgeon, of Turnham Green, was brought to his assistance. From the statement of this Gentleman, who had made every possible inquiry, it would appear, that the poor man probably had been in the water for the space of two hours. From the deposition of the three men, made in presence of a member of the Committee (Mr. Nichols) and the Registrar, who were deputed by the Society to visit the spot for the express purpose, it would appear, that he had been in that situation at least an hour, and probably much longer.

His history, as far as could be collected, was this: that being in a desponding state, with the functions of his mind not quite correct, owing to the loss of a child, he wandered about, that afternoon, for some time; and at length went on the ice, lay down there, and fell asleep. It being a thaw, the ice separated, and thus he fell into the water. After some considerable lapse of time, a groan being indistinctly heard by some person accidentally passing, attracted attention, but it was a long while before the situation of the object could be ascertained.

On Mr. Cox’s arrival, he found the body every where as cold to the touch as a piece of ice; the only sign of life was a short convulsive inspiration, not more frequent than once a minute, as if each was his last gasp. He felt not the smallest sign of pulsation, either in the region of the heart, or in the carotid, temporal, auxiliary, or radial arteries. His eyes had perfectly the appearance of death, the cornea transparent sunken and flabby, and the pupils dilated, and not in the smallest degree contractile on the near approach of a strong light.

Having been stripped and wiped dry, and the room made as warm as possible, Mr. Cox conveyed about half a pint of brandy into his stomach, through a tube; directed six strong men to rub him as actively as possible, and four others to hold a heated bottle of water to each foot and hand; whilst he kept a warming- pan with hot coals upon the region of the heart.

After TWO HOURS PERSEVERANCE in these measures, without any more promising symptoms of life, the warmth of any part of the body, kept up by artificial means, declining whenever those means were but for a short time removed, Mr. Cox opened the brachial artery of the left arm (which was nearest the fire and the warmest), but the blood was evidently congealed, and of a dark hue, and refused to flow from the orifice. His spasmodic breathing still continued without alteration, but even this afforded so little encouragement, after so long and fruitless a trial, that ” each spectator looked at him with the eye of hopeless despair.” Mr. Cox’s humanity, however, was still a powerful stimulus to his exertions. He endeavoured to keep up the hopes of his assistants, and after four hours unremitting perseverance from the commencement, the blood flowed from the orifice made in the brachial artery, the heart began sensibly to beat, and, in an instant after, the palpitation was so strong that it could be heard. He soon after recovered his speech.

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