Lance Becker: Back From the Dead

A Penn doctor is reviving patients like Chris Brooks — a 23-year-old who was clinically dead for 35 minutes — through a radical new procedure for victims of sudden cardiac arrest. But his work also raises a bold question: When are we really dead?

LANCE BECKER’S CELL phone rang at two in the morning.

“Lance!” screamed the woman on the other end of the line. “You have to help us!”

The woman was his cousin, Lynn Rossman. She was in the emergency room at Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo, Colorado. Her husband, Mike, had just died.

Lynn and Mike had flown in from California for her brother-in-law’s 60th birthday party. They’d just stepped off the dance floor and sat down at their table when Lynn felt Mike nuzzling her in the arm. She thought he was being cute. But when she turned around, she watched his body fall backwards toward the floor. He wasn’t breathing. Mike was in cardiac arrest.

“Mike!” she yelled as her sister Donna, an ER doctor, sprang from her chair and immediately began pounding his chest with compressions to get some blood flowing through his heart to his brain. A nurse from a nearby table started mouth-to-mouth. As Lynn waited for the paramedics to arrive, she watched her husband’s face turn blue. Then bluer. She looked at her watch; four minutes had passed. As a psychologist, she knew what that meant — after four minutes without oxygen, the brain starts to die. She wondered: How much brain damage will there be? Even though Mike wasn’t dying. At this point, Mike was already dead.

Four and a half more minutes passed. The paramedics arrived, shocked Mike’s heart with the defibrillator paddles. Once. Twice. Nothing. Usually they stop at two, but Donna demanded they try again. They did. And there it was: a pulse.

The ambulance sped to the nearest hospital, where Donna worked. As soon as the gurney pushed through the ER doors, a team of doctors and nurses surrounded it, including Donna. The attending on duty turned to his colleague, still dressed in her party clothes.

“I think we should freeze his brain,” he said.

“No,” Donna answered. “We should freeze his whole body.”

The trouble was, they didn’t know how.

The doctors in Pueblo had only heard about “therapeutic hypothermia” a few weeks before, when Donna had passed copies of a Newsweek article about it around their ER. The only reason Donna had read it was because the article was about her cousin, and the radical “cooling” he was doing at the University of Pennsylvania to help victims of sudden cardiac arrest, the number one cause of death in the United States. Ninety-five percent of people who show up at the hospital with cardiac arrest die from it. Of the very few who survive, almost all — 98 percent — suffer permanent brain damage. Cooling the body changed those stats, the article explained.

The Penn physician who was bringing people back from the dead was Lance Becker.

“Lance!” Lynn yelled over the phone. “Mike just had a cardiac arrest! We’re telling them they have to cool him, but they’ve never done it!” Becker knew what the ER docs were thinking: We see guys like this all the time; they never survive. And they were right. Becker had seen hundreds of cases like that himself — patients in their 50s and 60s and 70s who were resuscitated on the way to the hospital, but then continued to arrest in the ER, over and over, until they died. If they lived, they were vegetables.

But Becker now knew how to stop it.