Guru On Hot Seat: Sweat Lodges and Heat Stroke

20 Oct

James A. Ray is still a Spiritual Warrior… for anything new to live something first must die. What needs to die in you so that new life can emerge?

This was a Twitter tweet apparently posted by self-help guru James Ray. I guess what needed to die were a few kidneys, hearts, brains, and people. And now for his incredibly dangerous “Sweat Lodge” sessions, Mr. Ray might just find himself facing murder charges.

On October 8th, James Ray oversaw a retreat at the Angel Valley Retreat Center in Sedona, Arizona, where approximately 60 people gathered for a session of self-examination, meditation, and other activities orchestrated by the guru. Unfortunately one of these activities was spending a couple of hours in an enclosed 415 square-foot Sweat Lodge. The homemade structure consisted of a wooden frame covered with blankets and tarps and measured 53 inches in the center and 30 inches around the outer edges. Cozy just isn’t the right word.

AZ Sweat Lodge

So we’re talking 60 people packed into a short, squatty 2-car garage with no windows or doors in mid-afternoon in Arizona for two hours. It is reported that a flap was opened briefly every 15 minutes or so to drag in some fresh air, but after two hours in such an arrangement, as would be expected, the temperature within the packed lodge became dangerously elevated.

To make matters worse, the participants apparently fasted for 36 hours before having breakfast on that day, which suggests that many were likely at least somewhat dehydrated before entering the lodge at 3 p.m. A single meal will not make up for a day and half of fasting. It’s worth noting that the participants, who ranged in age from 30 to 60 or so, paid around $10,000 to attend the retreat.

It was two hours later that the first victim collapsed and at the end of the day nearly 2 dozen people were hospitalized and two people had died. A third victim died of multiple organ failure a week later. Others suffered kidney damage.

Sweat lodges have been around for a very long time and were used by many early American Indian tribes as part of their religious and cleansing ceremonies. Apparently they had enough experience and common sense not to spend too long in the lodge. Native tribes were well schooled in observing the environment and conforming their behavior to survive the weather, predatory animals, and other things that mother nature threw at them. It was a harsh existence but common sense and passed-on knowledge and tradition allowed them to survive and prosper. Not so much of either in this case.

Have you noticed those little signs hanging in the sauna or steam room at your local health club? You know, the ones that say not to spend more than 15 minutes and to keep yourself well hydrated? I guess James Ray didn’t get the message.

The situation these people found themselves in is very similar to a sauna or perhaps being abandoned in the desert. The result is what we in medicine call a heat injury. These come in various degrees of severity but the two most important are heat prostration and heat stroke. These are simply the same disease with one being further along a deadly pathway than the other.

When the body is exposed to heat, such as someone running a marathon or someone abandon in an Arizona desert, the body works to lower its core temperature, mainly through sweating. The evaporation of sweat from the skin draws heat from the body and lowers the core temperature. We’ve all experienced this natural phenomenon. But, as the body loses water, the blood volume contracts, and the blood flow to the skin is reduced. This is simply the body saving its most important parts. Under stress such as this, as the blood volume declines, blood is shunted toward vital organs such as the heart, lungs, and brain and away from the skin, a less vital organ.

But this decrease in blood flow to the skin has some very dangerous effects. The skin is the body’s natural radiator and as blood flow through it diminishes, it no longer works properly, is no longer able to dissipate the heat that is collecting within the body, and the core temperature begins to rise. The heart and the brain begin to malfunction. The kidneys, which now are receiving much less blood flow, began to fail. The electrolytes — things like sodium and potassium — within the blood began rising, and sometimes falling, to abnormal levels which will then interfere with the function of many things within the body, the most important being the electrical system of the heart. This will ultimately lead to cardiovascular collapse and death.

But even if this doesn’t happen the brain can become severely damaged from the elevated body temperature. Any time the body temperature rises above 104°F the brain is not happy. Once it rises to 106 or 107°, brain damage is likely if not certain.

When a marathon runner or football player collapses, heat injury is often involved. Sports such as these, when performed in excessively hot weather, can cause heat prostration, heat stroke, and death. This is what happened in the sweat lodge in Arizona. And in children left in cars while mom has a couple of drinks. And the vans left abandoned in the desert packed with illegal immigrants. And the trains that ran to Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.

How do these heat injuries occur? What distinguishes heat prostration from heat stroke? As the body temperature begins to rise, from either exercise, environmental exposure, or both, the body will begin to produce more sweat in an attempt to lower the body temperature. This process will continue for as long as it possible. But as the body begins to lose water and the blood volume begins to contract, the blood is shunted away from the skin, the radiator no longer works properly, and the body temperature begins to rise. The victim will then simply sweat more, which only makes things worse.  It is at this point that the body will begin to malfunction. The victim will become weak and dizzy, maybe confused and disoriented, and maybe develop muscle weakness and cramps. Physical activity is no longer possible. This is heat prostration. The treatment is to move to the shade, drink plenty of liquids, pour water over your body and have someone fan you with a towel or whatever is available, and rest. This is often all that is necessary to avoid serious injury.

But, if the activity is continued, or if the individual is not able to leave the hot environment, the temperature within the body will continue to rise. When the core temperature reaches 106-107 brain injury begins. One of the first areas involved is near the base of the brain in what we call the hypothalamus. This is where the temperature regulation center resides and when it begins to malfunction, several very bad things happen. Sweating ceases and, with the radiator now shut off, the body core temperature rises even further. The victim, who typically is already experiencing most of the above symptoms, will now collapse and become unconscious. There can even be seizures and death can follow very quickly. This is called heat stroke and is a true medical emergency.

Someone suffering from heat stroke must undergo the cooling things that I described above except that, since the victim is unconscious and can’t take fluids by mouth, the severe dehydration can’t be corrected in the field. Transportation to the hospital should be immediate. Once there, intravenous fluids in very large amounts are given and the victim might be placed in an ice bath — basically a tub filled with ice water–since rapidly lowering the body temperature is critical to survival. But even if these measures are undertaken, the victim might still die or be left with permanent brain injury.

So you can see that these people, who trusted the guru, were placed into a very dangerous situation, apparently without proper monitoring, without proper knowledge of what was going on, and without proper medical care being available. At least everything that I have read on this case so far seems to point in that direction.

Interestingly, it seems that back in 2005, during a similar sweat lodge session, 911 was called after someone passed out.

Will James Ray be charged with a criminal act? Was this tragedy an accident or was it something else? Maybe negligent homicide? We’ll wait and see.

CBS News



2 responses to “Guru On Hot Seat: Sweat Lodges and Heat Stroke

  1. Jessica Rohm

    October 20, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    I find your blog so interesting and your knowledge enlightening. Keep writing and sharing!


  2. Esri Rose

    October 21, 2009 at 8:20 am

    WOW. Negligent homicide seems appropriate. Wonder if any of these folks signed release forms beforehand? I imagine this guy’s career is finished. At least, I hope so.

    Great blog! I’m subscribing.



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