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?

“I get to talk to people who were dead,” Becker says. “That’s what keeps me going.” When he was flying out West to see Mike Rossman, his cousin’s husband, for the first time since he’d died in Pueblo, Becker felt nervous, wondering what to say. He came up with something clever, but when he saw Rossman and how rosy his cheeks were and how pink his skin was from all the blood flowing through him, he forgot all of it. Instead, he grabbed Rossman by the shoulders and whispered, “It’s really good to see you.”

But Becker’s not telling the truth about what motivates him. Not entirely. Sure, he loves to tell the good-luck stories. Like Chris Brooks. Like the six-month-old from Chester who went limp in his father’s arms, and ended up happy and healthy and saying “Dada” at his first birthday. Like the woman who came into the ER just a few days ago, arresting, clinically dead, and nine months pregnant. They saved the baby. The mother, so far, was doing well, breathing on her own, wiggling her fingers and toes.

“She would have been dead at almost every other hospital in the country,” Becker says. And that is what keeps him going. The bad-luck stories. He gets e-mails from people all over the U.S., people who took their father to an emergency room and were told that he was “too old” to be cooled, people who were sure doctors “pulled the plug” too soon because they didn’t know they could grab some ice and, maybe, bring a patient back. When he heard the reports last year about Tim Russert dying, about the failed resuscitation efforts, Becker wondered: Could he have been saved?

Only a quarter of emergency room docs in the United States have ever cooled a cardiac arrest patient. The procedure has been endorsed by the American Heart Association, but some doctors remain wary, worried that there haven’t been enough studies in humans. (Generally, in order to study someone, a doc needs the patient’s consent, which is tough to get when the patient arrives at a hospital … well … dead.) When Becker appeared as “the cooling guy” on Charlie Rose as part of a panel of superstar heart disease experts, one of his fellow panelists pretty much slammed the door on the discussion. “I have to admit I’m a skeptic about cooling,” said Steven Nissen, not only chair of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, but also one of Time magazine’s 2007 “most influential people in the world.” “I’m not at all convinced that we’re there yet.”