Blue iguana volunteer’s death ruled misadventure

Daniel Harris Hamilton succumbed to heat stroke in June 2011

An American college student who came to Cayman to work with the Blue Iguana Recovery Program died of heat stroke after spending two and a half days in the wilderness of East End in June 2011, a coroner’s court heard. 

After hearing evidence in the inquest Monday into the death of Daniel Harris Hamilton, 21, the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of misadventure, adopting the pathologist’s conclusion as to physical cause of death – heat stroke due to sun exposure and hyperthermia, with resulting multi-organ failure. 

The court heard that Mr. Hamilton arrived on island on Sunday, May 29, 2011. He spent time at the botanic park (home for the captive breeding program) on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday morning, June 1, he and two experienced volunteers, Douglas Bell and Stacy Whitaker, were dropped off at a trail leading to the Colliers Wilderness. They walked about 2 kilometers into the interior to a camp site and then spent the next two days cutting trails through scrubland to prepare for the release of 100 iguanas at the site. 

On Friday, they finished work around 11 a.m. and arranged for someone to meet them at the main road at 1:30 p.m. 

Mr. Bell said he started leading the way out at 12:30 p.m. and after a half hour called a break. Mr. Hamilton drank freely from his Camelback water container and, when asked how he felt, said “Fine, let’s get this done.” 

Mr. Bell said he set a slightly slower pace, but realized after 10 minutes that Mr. Hamilton was not walking as strongly as before, so he stopped and took Mr. Hamilton’s backpack. Mr. Hamilton drank more water and said to carry on.  

After another 10 minutes, however, he said he felt dizzy and they stopped at a shady area where Mr. Hamilton could rest. Mr. Hamilton was encouraged to eat a snack bar and Mr. Bell put a packet of electrolyte powder into his water to drink. Mr. Hamilton stopped sweating. 

Ms. Whitaker, who had gone ahead, brought back cold drinks from Foster’s supermarket in East End. They placed the cold bottles under Mr. Hamilton’s shirt and Mr. Bell phoned 911. They removed Mr. Hamilton’s clothing and poured cold drinks over him. He began retching and they turned him on his side, with Ms. Whitaker holding his head.  

Paramedic Alvaro Obando told the court the thick brush and uneven ironshore made it difficult for Emergency Medical Services staff to gain access to Mr. Hamilton, and they realized they would not be able to carry a patient out safely on a backboard. He contacted 911 for evacuation by helicopter. 

He said it took 20 to 25 minutes to reach the patient, who by then was unconscious. His breathing was rapid and shallow and his blood pressure was 90/54.  

When the helicopter could not find a suitable landing place, Fire Department officers began clearing an area, which took another 20 to 25 minutes. 

With Mr. Hamilton on board, the helicopter flew to the Smith Road Cricket Oval, where police officers and cricket officials had cleared the field of a game in progress. An ambulance carried him to the Cayman Islands Hospital, where his core temperature was noted to be 107.6 degrees. Government pathologist Dr. Shravana Jyoti said anything higher than 105.8 degrees is fatal. 

After an hour and 10 minutes of emergency treatment, Mr. Hamilton failed to regain consciousness and was declared dead at 5:40 p.m. 

The maximum temperatures on the days Mr. Hamilton was in the wilderness were 88 degrees, 89 degrees and 87.3 degrees, the court heard.  

Queen’s Coroner Eileen Nervik conducted the inquiry and asked questions on behalf of Mr. Hamilton’s family. His fiancee, mother and brother were present. Program director Frederic Burton also attended, along with volunteer coordinator Sara Burton. 

After the verdict was given, Mr. Hamilton’s mother asked if any procedures or equipment might be put in place so that if something like this happened again, there would be a better outcome. 

Mr. Burton said there had been changes. After court adjourned, he explained that the volunteer program was stopped for a while after Mr. Hamilton’s death.  

“We soul searched – was this a good idea that we do this at all?” he said, noting that there have been hundreds of people involved in the blue iguana program. 

Information about heat stroke has been added to the volunteer’s safety manual, he said, and there is now road access closer to the wilderness campsite.  

Helicopter-Cricket-Pitch-S

The helicopter carrying heat stroke victim Daniel Harris Hamilton touched down on the cricket oval in George Town. – PHOTO: FILE
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1 COMMENT

  1. What a sad, unfortunate outcome. Given the age, a medication or other substances induced hyperthermia could be the culprit, most likely serotonin toxicity.
    The people, whether from the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, the Emergency Medical Services and the Fire Department, clearly did the best they could given the circumstances. My deepest condolences to Daniel Harris Hamilton’s family.

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