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?

He calmly talked the ER doc through Penn’s protocol for cooling — reducing the body’s temp to 91 degrees for 24 hours. The hospital didn’t have the high-tech “cooling suit” Penn wraps around a patient’s torso and limbs, so the nurses packed Mike’s body in Ziploc baggies filled with ice. Just like at Penn, they gave him a sedative, and a drug so he wouldn’t shiver. They pumped chilled saline through his veins. And then they waited.

And Lynn waited, staring at her husband as he lay on his hospital bed in a coma, encased in ice, with tubes poking out of his body. After 24 hours, the nurses started to warm him slowly, taking away the ice, decreasing the drugs, carefully prodding him to wake up. No one knew if Mike was even still in there, if his brain would actually work. Finally, his eyes opened.

“Do you know who I am?” Lynn asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “This is the strangest hotel room I’ve ever been in.”

A joke. That was all Lynn needed to know that Mike was still there. She started to cry.

Lance Becker, though, is frustrated by this story. Yes, it has a happy ending. Yes, that ending is a direct result of the work at the Center for Resuscitation Science at Penn, which he runs. But here’s Becker’s problem:

Mike Rossman was lucky.

That’s all.

He was lucky that he collapsed in a roomful of people instead of in his house, alone. Lucky that among those people, there were doctors and nurses who gave him good CPR. Lucky that one of those doctors was his sister-in-law, who had just read about cooling, that some of the ER doctors at the hospital had heard about it, that they were willing to try a procedure they’d never done. Lucky that his wife not only knew the single most knowledgeable physician in the field of therapeutic hypothermia, but had his phone number.

“If she hadn’t called, he’d be dead,” Becker says. “We have to get to a point where cooling is standard.” In all ambulances. In all emergency rooms. In all hospitals. But it’s not. Yet.

And that’s why Becker can’t sleep at night, why he stays in his office on South 31st Street sometimes until 2:30 in the morning. He’s certain that because of him, because he isn’t working fast enough, people who shouldn’t be are dying.

IT’S NOT AN easy job, changing what death means.

Well, that’s not exactly true. The hard part isn’t pushing the boundary between life and death. Becker’s already doing that. That standard four-minute time limit during which you can be dead and still be brought back? Becker thinks it’s now more like 15 minutes, maybe even 30.