The Main Stream

Apr 14, 2014 10:47 AM by Ryan Haarer

Dead or alive? E.R. docs look to suspend life to save life

TUCSON- If you're heart stops beating are you really dead? It's a concept trauma surgeons are challenging with high hopes of saving even more lives in the emergency room. It's fascinating science on the verge of being tested on humans.

Dr. Peter Rhee at the University of Arizona has been working with other doctors on this idea for 15 years. These doctors think if someone with a traumatic injury enters their hospital, about to die, they may be able to bring their brain and heart temperature down so rapidly, doctors would have a few extra hours to repair those wounds.

"The faster I can get to you, the better it is. The time that you waste from injury to me is critical," said Dr. Rhee.

Shift after shift he zips up a body bag often times knowing it might not have to be the end.

"When your heart's not beating and your brain's not getting any blood, that's when we technically define death. And we find that's not true."

It's an idea he thought of while in the military. Wounded soldier's biggest enemy was time. But, what if he could buy time through a technique called suspended animation?

"You're not alive anymore. But you're not really dead. We found that we can give about two to three hours, maybe sometimes even up to four hours of a state where you don't have any blood in your body and your heart's not beating but we can still bring you back to life."

Tests on pigs have been successful. Dr. Rhee says a cold saline solution filled with potassium would replace a patient's blood essentially stopping life. But, with temperatures so low cells can survive longer, giving trauma teams a chance to repair the injuries and restart the heart.

"In my mind, I know it's just a matter of time and money before we put this into practice every single day," said a confident Dr. Rhee.

Trials on humans have been very difficult to get from the government because to test it the family and patient would be unable to give consent. There has been approval for ten patients at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh. No word on if trials will be coming UAMC anytime soon.

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