Brain and Body

Presumed-Dead Man Frozen Under Snow for Hours was “Brought Back to Life” by Doctors

January 26, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Two handprints on a frosty, snow-covered surface

This is a first in the world of science.

A 25-year-old man, Justin Smith, miraculously survived extreme hypothermia after he was found lying frozen in a snow drift last February in temperatures of -4 degrees Fahrenheit (-20 degrees Celsius) for 12 hours — a first in medical science.

“I looked over and there was Justin laying there,” Justin’s father Don told WNEP. “He was blue. His face — he was lifeless. I checked for a pulse. I checked for a heartbeat. There was nothing.”

He was initially presumed dead, as the coroner at the scene found no pulse, and Smith’s body temperature was not even registering with a digital thermometer. He was flown to Lehigh Valley Hospital by helicopter, where a team of doctors and nurses first tried to warm him up and resuscitate his heart using CPR — but no luck.

Luckily, the emergency department physician on duty at the time, Gerald Coleman, decided to give Smith a potassium test — potassium is vital for communication between nerves and muscles. If the results of a potassium test show a high concentration within the bloodstream, this indicates that the heart muscle activity is significantly reduced. In the state that Smith was in, a high concentration would tell doctors that it was very unlikely his heart would restart.

However, the results came back normal, so doctors turned to a technique called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which involves passing warm, oxygenated blood through the heart and rest of the body. Smith’s heart began to quiver, and then doctors managed to shock his heart back into restarting.

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However, Smith didn’t magically wake up, and he needed ventilators in order to breathe for him. The ECMO procedure was also continued for some time, but the doctors didn’t give up on him.

Using scans designed to detect the electrical signals transmitted through neurological activity, the doctors were shocked to discover that Smith had no brain damage — in fact, his brain activity returned to entirely normal.

The doctors thought he might have been brain-dead, but nearly a year later after waking up from his coma, Smith is completely healthy. He lost his toes and little fingers to frostbite, but with all things considered, Smith is a pretty lucky guy.

Smith’s survival against all odds has shown the medical community that it’s always worth trying to save a life, even if the chances seem grim. “We’ve learned that there really is no temperature so low that you shouldn’t try to save someone,” University of Manitoba thermophysiologist Gordon Giesbrecht told Outside.

Smith is the coldest person in history known to have survived exposure-related hypothermia, and he told the Standard-Speaker that he considers himself a miracle.

“We may have witnessed a game-changer in modern medicine — medicine moves forward in extraordinary cases,” Coleman, the emergency department physician said. “His survival is a paradigm change in how we resuscitate and how we treat people that suffer from hypothermia.”

Scientists still aren’t completely sure how Smith survived, especially with no brain damage, but his case goes to show just how miraculous the field of medicine can be — and that there’s still much to learn.

Watch the full video of Smith’s story below:

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