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?

ER doc Benjamin Abella, who’d been monitoring Chris since he was life-flighted from Aria hospital in Langhorne that morning, knew the case was complicated. Abella was Robin to Lance Becker’s Batman at the Center for Resuscitation Science; both men had moved their families to Philadelphia in 2006 to get the lab up and running. In two years, they’d created the largest, most advanced, most cross-disciplined hospital-wide resuscitation program in the country. In their lab, scientists tested deep into mitochondria, epidemiologists studied data, physicians experimented in a mini surgical suite made for rat-size patients, engineers built bizarre equipment. They consulted with physicians across the Penn system — from pediatric surgeons to neurologists. By the time Chris Brooks was helicoptered in, they’d already cooled nearly 50 cardiac arrest patients.

But Chris Brooks was unusual. He’d been “down” — without oxygen — for at least 45 minutes, so severe brain damage was likely. Proper cooling hadn’t started until he got to Penn, about 12 hours after he first arrested. Plus, no one could figure out why he’d gone into cardiac arrest. He hadn’t had a heart attack. He didn’t have coronary disease. He wasn’t a smoker or out of shape.

Nurse Dana Bower started the sedatives and other meds through IVs, and wrapped Chris’s torso and limbs in the “cooling suit,” which works like a giant, flexible ice pack, with a thermostat attached to control the temperature of the water flowing inside it. He already had a breathing tube. All he needed was for the doctor to come and start the thick IV of chilled saline in his neck and groin. Then Chris’s father walked into the hospital room. When Bower turned to greet him, she instantly broke into tears.

“It’s not the nurse in me that’s crying,” she explained. “It’s the mom.”

Chris Brooks was just 22 years old.

He’d been out bowling with friends the night before, back from East Stroudsburg University for the weekend. After driving a friend home, he pulled into his parents’ driveway at 2:30, then lay down on the couch in his parents’ living room. His mom, Joan, was asleep on the loveseat. Chris started snoring. Loudly.

“Christopher, knock it off,” Joan said. He kept snoring. She sat up. “Christopher, wake up!” she screamed. Nothing. His father, Joe, woke up, and his parents pulled Chris onto the floor, yelling, splashing water on his face. Nothing. He had stopped breathing.

Joe called 911. Following instructions from the emergency dispatch operator, Joe passed the phone to Joan and then got on his knees, straddling his son’s torso, pushing repeatedly on his son’s chest, just the way he’d seen it done on House.

“Come on, Chris!” Joan cried out as she held the phone.

“Look out front,” Joe yelled, sweating from all the compressions. Joan ran to the door just as a police car and an ambulance sped onto the street. The EMTs took over. They shocked Chris once. Twice.

“No response,” a paramedic said. Just that night at dinner, Chris had downed two big glasses of milk as he told his mom what he planned to do with his life: graduate with a degree in business and finance, buy a car, buy a house in two years. No response. Joe began to sob. The medic pulled out a syringe of epinephrine and plunged it into Chris’s chest. Another shock. A heartbeat. Finally.