May 1, 2007


What they saw amazed them, according to Dr. Lance Becker, an authority on emergency medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “After one hour,” he says, “we couldn’t see evidence the cells had died. We thought we’d done something wrong.” In fact, cells cut off from their blood supply died only hours later.

But if the cells are still alive, why can’t doctors revive someone who has been dead for an hour? Because once the cells have been without oxygen for more than five minutes, they die when their oxygen supply is resumed. It was that “astounding” discovery, Becker says, that led him to his post as the director of Penn’s Center for Resuscitation Science, a newly created research institute operating on one of medicine’s newest frontiers: treating the dead. . . .

With this realization came another: that standard emergency-room procedure has it exactly backward. When someone collapses on the street of cardiac arrest, if he’s lucky he will receive immediate CPR, maintaining circulation until he can be revived in the hospital. But the rest will have gone 10 or 15 minutes or more without a heartbeat by the time they reach the emergency department. And then what happens? “We give them oxygen,” Becker says. “We jolt the heart with the paddles, we pump in epinephrine to force it to beat, so it’s taking up more oxygen.” Blood-starved heart muscle is suddenly flooded with oxygen, precisely the situation that leads to cell death. Instead, Becker says, we should aim to reduce oxygen uptake, slow metabolism and adjust the blood chemistry for gradual and safe reperfusion.

As Miracle Max put it: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” It just turns out that dealing with that is different than we thought.

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