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?

The docs in the ER at Aria knew they should cool Chris, but they didn’t have the right equipment, or any official protocol to follow. So they packed him in bags of ice. The next morning, Saturday, Chris was transferred to Penn.

As they waited the eight hours it takes for the body to cool to 91 degrees, Chris’s family tried to pinpoint exactly when he got home from bowling. His sister Melissa thumbed through the texts on his cell. The last text he’d received was from the friend he’d dropped off the night before. “Oh, you must be so tired,” she wrote. Chris had texted back one word: “Dead.”

All day Sunday, friends and family came by. Joan knew why staffers let so many people stay in the waiting rooms, the hallways: They didn’t think Chris would make it.

Twenty-four hours passed. Chris’s heart and brain had rested. The cooling hopefully had halted the “death mode” and all the nasty chemicals released into his bloodstream as a result. The time had come to warm him. Chris’s family sat around his bed, holding onto his hands. Dr. Abella was there, worrying as he always did at this moment. Would Chris still be in there?

“If you can hear us, squeeze our hands,” Joan said. “Squeeze our hands.” Melissa thought she felt a hint of pressure. Chris’s mouth twitched a little. His eyes fluttered.

“Can you hear us, Chris?” a nurse asked. “If you can hear us, give us a thumbs-up, Chris. Chris!”

Chris didn’t give them a thumbs-up.

He gave them two.

From then on, he was known throughout the hospital as “The Miracle Kid.”

Chris knows he’s a miracle, and not just because his mom reminds him 48 times a day. “I mean, I’m happy that I’m alive, obviously,” he says.

But Chris isn’t the typical cardiac arrest survivor — the 60-year-old guy who leaves the hospital vowing to change his life, to walk on that treadmill four days a week, to eat more whole grains. Chris is now 23. A year ago, he was totally athletic, totally pushing limits, totally invincible. And now, he isn’t. For a while, he couldn’t lift heavy things or run too fast or too long. Now, no contact sports.

“I’m kind of pissed off,” he admits. “This is something I now have to deal with. And it sucks.” For one thing, there’s a defibrillator implanted in his chest — not everyone gets one, and the big old bump it makes — because the docs still don’t know what caused the arrest and don’t want to risk it happening again. So he needs to get DNA tests to try and figure it out, but the tests cost up to $20,000, and since he just graduated from college, he’s not on his dad’s insurance anymore.

But then he looks up at the photo of him in his college graduation cap and gown, propped on the mantle in his parents’ house. He remembers sitting with the other graduates in the auditorium when the dean called the name of a student who had died. Her parents walked up the stairs. When the mother took the diploma in her hand, she started to cry. Chris realized it could have been his parents making that walk.

“When I saw that,” he says, “I was like, Oh my God.”

Chris knows he was lucky. He says it a lot: “I’m lucky. I’m lucky.” And that’s exactly why Becker doesn’t just sprint on weekends when he runs through the Wissahickon with his daughter, who just started at Penn’s med school. He sprints through the halls of Penn’s Translational Research Lab, too.