What toll does being stranded at sea take on your health?

Concerns include exposure, dehydration, malnutrition, exhaustion, hypothermia

By Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As the search for two firefighters lost at sea continues, it's still unknown whether Brian McCluney and Justin Walker are drifting in their 24-foot center console boat or in the water.

According to medical experts, there are a couple of different scenarios in play. The best-case scenario is that they are still drifting out to sea in the boat. Even if that's the case, Dr. Andrew Schmidt with UF Health Jacksonville said there are serious medical concerns.

He said they could be dealing with serious exposure issues, including severe sunburn that can result in second-degree burns. Other areas of concern are dehydration and malnutrition if they haven't had any water and food. There's also the potential for exhaustion.

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In the worst-case scenario, they could be in the water. If that's the case, they could be wearing life vests or clinging to something to stay afloat. "Anybody exposed to water under 94 degrees after a certain amount of time will experience hypothermia," Schmidt said.

For the past couple of decades, Schmidt said, boats have been designed with more buoyancy in mind, meaning there's a chance that if the boat took on water or capsized, the firefighters could still use it to keep themselves out of the water.

While exposure presents the biggest concern, it's worrisome if the pair are in the water.

"We are talking about low levels of sugar, but not able to take food at that time your brain needs sugar to function, so it’s likely with out proper nutrition," Schmidt said. "Especially over a couple of days, you would experience some changes."

He said their best bet would be to tie themselves to a floatation device, even a cooler, in case they lose consciousness, so they still float. He said an ordeal like this can also take a toll on mental health.

"It can really do a number on someone’s mental health for a couple reasons," he said. "From a psychological standpoint of giving up and having hope the back and forth."

What works in these firefighters' favor is they have far more medical and survival training than the average person. Those skills could be what ultimately gets them through this.

"Anything that puts you in a stressful situation over and over and teaches you ways to cope with it, that without question helps," Schmidt said.

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