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Heat illness (cramps, heat exhaustion, and, finally, heatstroke) occurs when the body’s core overheats. To drive core temps as low as possible, many athletes in last summer’s Olympics donned ice vests like those made by Arctic Heat before competition. Douglas Casa, director of athletic training education at the University of Connecticut, predicts that precooling is poised to be “one of the hottest” trends in endurance athletics. “It’s ethical, legal, and gives you a leg up,” he says.
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Arctic Heat Cool Vests in action.
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In the heat of Brisbane Lions territory, it’s a must-have on the sidelines to cool the players instantly.
But the AFL premiers are not the only lions using this vest.
Doug Parkinson, currently starring as the big cat in The Wizard of Oz, says the cooling vest is the key to surviving the heat of his lion costume.
“Honestly, the only thing I can describe it as is like being in a sauna,” he said.
“You’re zipped in up the back, on goes the wig and the beard. All that’s seen is my face. I’ve got these paws and feet – they’re like industrial gloves. Once I’m in there I can’t scratch my nose.”
“I almost fainted the first time I put it on in Sydney. Honestly, I thought I was going to pass out.”
He first found out about the vest when inventors approached him after watching a Melbourne performance.
“It was a miracle,” Parkinson said.
“The temperature went down in the suit from probably about 15 to 20 degrees.”
But the vest has become much more than a heat-control device.
During the horrors of Bali, surgeons discovered just how vital the vest was to their life-saving work.
At the burns theatre at the Royal Brisbane Hospital the temperature is kept at just under 40C.
The heat is crucial in order to keep blood loss in skin grafts to a minimum.
For the medical team performing these miracles, conditions were unbearable.
Doctor Michael Rudd, senior surgeon in the burns unit at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, spent more than 120 hours in the theatre operating on Bali victims, a feat that would not have been possible without the vest.
“It’s really hot – it’s hot, it’s uncomfortable and if you don’t look after yourself you can actually get dehydrated and the equivalent of getting heat stroke,” he said.
“They keep you cool for about an hour – between an hour and two hours – depending on how hot the theatre is and that just makes a major difference.”
Shane Williams and a business partner created the Arctic Heat vest seven years ago.
Both were involved in the AFL and wanted to combat heat stress.
Their flagship model has now been expanded to treat an extensive variety of people from multiple sclerosis sufferers to those with eczema.
“I suppose you always hope when you go into an idea like this that you might come up with something but it certainly expanded to beyond what we thought,” Mr Williams said.
“Initially the vest comes in this form where these little pockets have the crystal. You soak this vest in water for about 15 minutes and the crystal actually becomes a gel, like so.
“Now this gel has the ability to hold temperature for long, long periods, so you can ice it, you can cool it, you can do whatever.”
Mother-of-two Vanessa Shae will never recover from back injuries she sustained as a child gymnast.
“It was shown that I’d broken two of the lower discs in the bottom of my back, so I couldn’t continue with my gymnastics,” she said.
Ms Shae uses the back brace as a heat application and her pain is now under control.
“Seven months ago I was very grumpy – moody – continuously complaining all the time of pain, irritability. I couldn’t do certain things around the house. Now I have no excuse for doing anything,” she said.
“I think it’s an amazing breakthrough for Australia itself to come out with something so wonderful.”
Mr Williams says the vest has a variety of uses.
“As you can see it’s designed specifically for the shape of the back,” he said.
“It just actually wraps around like so – you’ve got hot, cold and instant compression. It also can be used – ladies are having a lot of success with it for period pain and those type of problems.”
As for Ms Shae, she says the vest has worked wonders for her pain.
“It’s a miracle cure,” she said.
“I can’t say that other people – it would be a miracle cure for them – but I certainly think that it is well worth giving it a try.”
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REPORTER: Ashleigh Frater