SOUTH BAR, N.S. — An autistic boy who survived two frigid nights lost in a densely wooded area of Cape Breton probably saved himself by seeking shelter under a thick carpet of underbrush and huddling next to his dog in the snow, searchers said Monday.
Seven-year-old James Delorey was unconscious and suffering from severe hypothermia when he was found around 12:15 p.m.
His dog, a mixed-breed named Chance, had emerged from the marshy forest north of Sydney about two hours earlier, spurring searchers to redouble their efforts to find the little boy.
James was in critical condition when he was picked up by helicopter and taken to the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, the largest children’s hospital in the Maritimes.
“He had severe hypothermia and was unresponsive,” said Paul Maynard, a spokesman for Nova Scotia’s Emergency Health Services.
“He did have very weak vital signs. That’s why we transported him and are trying to warm him up and get those vital signs back to a normal range. Our fingers are crossed. Hopefully a miracle will happen and he will pull through.”
Police said James had wandered away from his home in South Bar on Saturday afternoon while following his dog, triggering a massive search involving hundreds of people and three aircraft.
Within hours of his disappearance, a large snowstorm moved into the region, dumping up to 15 centimetres on some areas.
The boy, who can’t speak, was not wearing a winter coat, hat or mittens.
The temperature held at 3 C for most of Saturday night but it dipped to 0 C on Sunday morning as the wind picked up, delivering gusts clocked at almost 70 kilometres per hour.
A rescue helicopter was grounded all day Sunday as the storm lashed the island.
By Monday morning, the temperature had dropped to -3 C.
Desiree Vassallo, a spokeswoman for Cape Breton Regional Police, said the brown-haired boy was found 1.3 kilometres from a temporary police command post in South Bar.
It took 90 minutes for paramedics to lug their medical equipment into the bush, where the boy was stabilized. Then the boy had to be carried 400 metres to a clearing where the chopper had touched down.
The helicopter lifted off for Halifax at 3:30 p.m.
“They had to do some clearing and some manoeuvring and be as careful as possible getting him out,” said Vassallo. “All those things took time.”
Mike Murray of Halifax Regional Search and Rescue said a search team found the boy under thick brush by a brook near Kilkenny Lake.
“Our role was to first stabilize the boy and then get him ready for transport,” Murray told a news conference in Sydney.
“The conditions out there were very difficult to search in. We had a very young child so there was a great sense of urgency. But I must admit that I was very impressed with the turnout of people that were there … and we came in this morning pretty confident that we would be successful today.”
Dr. Philip Yoon, district chief of emergency medicine at the Capital Health District in Halifax, said those diagnosed with severe hypothermia often suffer permanent damage to their organs.
“In general, the prognosis can be very poor, depending on a high number of individual factors,” Yoon said.
“It’s a condition where there’s a great potential for permanent damage.”
He said severe hypothermia means the core body temperature has fallen below 29 C. A normal body temperature is 37 C.
There have been “scattered case reports of small children being resuscitated from significant hypothermia and having a good recovery,” he added.
Yoon, who has treated a number of severe cases in the past, said doctors will use blankets and warm intravenous fluids to gradually warm a patient suffering from hypothermia.
Chief Myles Burke of Cape Breton Regional Police said James’s parents were overwhelmed by the response they received in the search for their son.
“This story has touched the hearts of the entire Cape Breton community, this province and right across this country,” said Burke.
The search was considered particularly difficult because James does not speak, which meant he wasn’t expected to respond to searchers’ calls.
That’s why police decided to tell searchers to call out to the dog and offer James one of his favourite foods: pizza.
Police said some searchers were told to say, “Come on, let’s go see mummy.”
James had run away before, usually showing up not far from his home at a neighbour’s house.
— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax