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STUBBORN AS A MULE

Trapped for 67 hours in the hot Tennessee summer, Delores Huling had one last chance for survival: her OnStar Good Samaritan neighbors.

Welcome to Lancing, Tennessee.

To get here, you’d travel east along winding Highway 62 from Nashville, or west from Knoxville. You’d traverse some breathtaking mountain views. You reach the town of Wartburg and look for a tiny dirt road called Granny Hump, and follow that. You’ll most likely lose your cellphone reception, so hopefully you have OnStar. You’ll eventually find Lancing, nestled in a bowl surrounded by mountains. In Lancing, temperatures can soar fast, the surrounding mountains layer on extreme humidity and the landscape can be unforgiving. These, together with a runaway mule, are the reasons Delores Hurling almost did not survive the summer of 2013.

Cathy Wilson sitting in car
Cathy Wilson

“In the summertime, the humidity is a killer. It really is,” says Cathy Wilson, Delores Huling’s nearest neighbor. Cathy met Delores in the spring of 2012, and the two became friends, helping each other out whenever help was needed. “Delores is an icon around here. Everybody knows Delores,” says Cathy. “She is a soft one for the critters. She had a little shed kind of off to the side of her house where she housed the chickens and the pigs and the mule and the dogs and the cats and the rabbits. Can’t forget the rabbits. I loved her animals — even though the nemesis of her life was the mule. That’s what got her in trouble.”

Delores’ mule liked to escape the pen and wander. Normally she could be found a couple fields behind Delores’ place, where that property owner kept horses, and Delores was usually able to lure her back home with a little food. But during the widely reported heat wave of August 2013, the mule escaped and stayed away for two weeks. Cathy spotted the mule on August 22. “I saw her in what we call the birthday fields — we would hold concerts up there. It was a Thursday, and I told Delores I would come help her on Saturday. She’s stubborn, she’s proud and she’ll try it herself before asking for any help. And Delores didn’t want to wait. That’s Delores.”

Unbeknownst to Cathy, Delores, 70, with two knee replacements and recent rotator cuff surgery, left on Friday afternoon to look for the mule, casually mentioning her plan to her caregiver as her caregiver was leaving for home.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Cathy drove to Delores’ house as promised, bringing her boyfriend Rocky. They found no one home, although Delores’ dog Sadie came up to greet them. “Sadie was very protective. Once she got to know you, she was just an, ‘oh, I’m so happy to see you’ type dog. But she’s very protective of Delores. If somebody was yelling or aggressive, that dog’s in between them, and she will not let anybody near Delores. The dog stayed in the house, slept in the house, and, if anybody came up that shouldn’t have, ’cause Delores had this thing about never locking a door, Sadie would be the first one to let you know. And wherever Delores went around the house or property Sadie was right there. Good dog. Well-trained dog. Well-mannered dog.”

As usual, Delores’ door was unlocked, so Cathy and Rocky went inside. “We said hello, checked her bedroom. She wasn’t in bed, so we knew she was okay. Her truck was gone, so we thought maybe she went off somewhere with her son — he’d take her somewhere now and again. So we didn’t think too much of it.”

Cathy and Rocky returned to Delores’ house on Sunday, and still saw no sign of Delores. Again, Delores’ dog Sadie approached them. “She’d just bark and look at us and then just walk off. And we’re going like, ‘Okay. Sadie’s not upset about anything.’”

On Monday afternoon, Cathy and Rocky returned to Delores’ house. Delores’ caregiver was there, but Delores was still missing. “I asked her if she’d seen Delores, and she answered, ‘All I know was Friday she said she was thinking about going up to the field to see if she can’t put some feed out for her mule.’ Rocky and I looked at each other and went, ‘Uh-oh.’ And that’s when we drove up there.”

The pair drove up the road searching for signs of Delores’ truck. They were at the top of a hill, and down the slope was a thick clump of trees. That was where Rocky spotted the truck.

The OnStar Advisor sent emergency responders to Delores’ location, then talked Cathy through steps to take while they waited for help to arrive. From the top of the hill, Cathy shouted directions down to Rocky, then he’d shout information on Delores back to Cathy so she could tell the Advisor what was happening. “She stayed on the line with me,” Cathy recalls. “I don’t know who the young lady is that I talked to, but she needs a pat on her back. She was a calm, wonderful person — and that’s what we needed.”

“Delores had climbed out of her truck, then her feet slid underneath,” Rocky explains. “It’s such an incline, she couldn’t get back up. She couldn’t climb, because there are nothing but burrs. I’m just glad we were there and we were able to get help there. Another day, she would have died. That’s what the doctor told us.”

It took just over 30 minutes for responders to reach Delores. Because she was so deep in the ravine, they had to call for additional help. “There was no road, and they were going to have to carry her out,” Cathy recalls. “And the weeds didn’t help. They hurt, but I was so glad to see her when she got up to the ambulance. She looked around and she cracked a joke and I said, ‘Okay. Delores, you’re going to be fine now.’”

“I know how foolish it was now, but it seemed like a good plan at the time,” Delores reflects. “I hit a slick area and my truck turned and slid down into a low spot off the road. I was stuck but good. I climbed out thinking I’d walk back to the house, but the grass was so high I couldn’t manage it with my cane. I ended up dragging myself back to the truck and found I couldn’t get up anymore.

“I’m so grateful to Cathy and so glad she has OnStar. A friend of mine said I’m as stubborn as an old dead hog," Delores says. "All I know is I learned a big lesson.”

  • AUG
    23
    -FRI-

    TIME: 6:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 92°

    HUMIDITY: 91%

    Delores' truck skidded off the rutted road. She climbed out, trying to reach her bucket of feed, and slipped, her feet sliding underneath the truck. "Initially, in addition to feeling frustration and fear, with high humidity and no wind, the temperature of an individual in these circumstances would be elevated within a short period of time," says Dr. Jim Getzinger, emergency physician at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.

  • AUG
    24
    -SAT-

    TIME: 12:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 94°

    HUMIDITY: 100%

    "While temperatures cool overnight, the average person would still be dehydrated," says Dr. Getzinger. "She would likely begin experiencing heat cramps and fatigue from her efforts to extricate herself. She would be sweating, and the more water you lose, the less strength you have."

  • AUG
    24
    -SAT-

    TIME: 6:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 92°

    HUMIDITY: 100%

    "By now, an individual would have lost a lot of sodium, which can lead to difficulty concentrating," says Dr. Getzinger. "This will cause more mistakes if she is struggling to escape."

  • AUG
    25
    -SUN-

    TIME: 12:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 97°

    HUMIDITY: 96%

    "At this point, a person would most likely be suffering from heat exhaustion," says Dr. Getzinger. "While the person might still be sweating, her skin will feel cool to the touch, and she would appear pale. The individual's heartbeat will accelerate, and she will feel extremely weak and fatigued and may have a headache as well. Many people have difficulty walking at this point, and nausea and vomiting are not uncommon."

  • AUG
    25
    -SUN-

    TIME: 6:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 95°

    HUMIDITY: 96%

    "By this time, heat exhaustion usually progresses to heat stroke, which is a real medical emergency," Dr. Getzinger says. "When a patient has heat stroke, they will stop sweating, so the skin can't help regulate her temperature. The person may become delirious and begin hallucinating."

  • AUG
    26
    -MON-

    TIME: 1:00 P.M.

    TEMP (FAHRENHEIT): 98°

    HUMIDITY: 100%

    Cathy and Rocky spot Delores' truck. "After this much time, exposure to heat without shelter could be fatal," Dr. Getzinger notes. "The average person would start to get organ damage, kidney and liver start shutting down, and they could experience seizures and loss of consciousness."