78-year-old suburban race car driver who almost died warns about dangers of dehydration

Medical Watch

Dehydration in weather similar to what has enveloped the Chicago area over the past week can have dire consequences. For Luigi Novelli, a healthy man and racecar driver, it brought his life to a screeching halt.

Now, doctors are offering up some advice to keep others on the road to good health.

At his machine repair shop in Crete, Novelli’s top fuel dragster sits idle.

“We don’t have any sponsors really other than Goodyear. We get some tires and plugs,” Novelli said.

Novelli has been behind the wheel since 1963, and he was hooked after his first experience driving.

“It’s unexplainable. You have to do it to really know what’s what. I can’t explain it,” Novelli said.

At 78-years-old, Novelli is not slowing down, despite nearly losing his life on the track in late June.

Wearing a 20-layer fireproof racing suit on a scorching-hot day, Novelli admitted he never drank enough water to stay hydrated throughout his career.

“Imagine like 140 degrees, and not only I wasn’t drinking, when you get out of the car you are soaked. Whatever you got in your system, you sweat it out,” Novelli said.

Novelli said he went to get out of the car and fell back in the seat immediately before his pit crew and first responders performed CPR.

“They pulled me out of the car, and in fact I was kind of mad after that because they broke my ribs. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would have been dead,” Novelli said.

Novelli was airlifted to a local hospital where he spent four days. His official diagnosis was cardiorespiratory arrest brought on by severe dehydration.

“With extreme heat, your body is losing lots of water. It’s actually losing salt and water, and by losing salt and water what we’re doing is decreasing our intravascular volume,” cardiologist Dr. Jason Robin said.

The loss of fluid causes blood pressure to plummet. Patients get light-headed and can lose consciousness in severe cases, like Novelli did on the track.

“Most people who do survive it will not have any heart damage. Sometimes there is some transient cardiac dysfunction, but if all we’re dealing with is profound dehydration, as long as that person is resuscitated quickly and early there should be no heart damage at all,” Robin said.

Novelli is hoping the National Hot Rod Association will clear him to race again. His truck is packed and ready, with hopes to enter nationals in Indianapolis later this month.

“A couple more years, that’s enough. I want to go to 80,” Novelli said.

Older people or those with pre-existing heart conditions are more likely to suffer serious consequences or severe dehydration. In extreme conditions, doctors say you need to drink about half your body weight in ounces to stay safe.

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