With the help of postdoctoral engineer Josh Lampe, Becker and Abella have designed a machine that uses IVs to flush the body with an ice-water saline mixture—“like a slushee, a slurpee, a margarita,” Lampe says. The machine makes its slurry on demand and should drop a person’s temperature to 91° in two hours, versus the eight it takes now. If things go well with their first prototype, which they’re currently testing on pigs, Becker and Lampe will apply for FDA approval to use the machine on cardiac-arrest patients in a clinical trial. It should be possible, Lampe says, to make it portable. “Dream comes true, it’s in an ambulance and the EMT does it,” he says.
Back in the cardiac-care unit, Barco was finally rewarming after 24 cold hours. The cooling wraps and cold saline were gone. Nurse Dana Bower was carefully watching Barco’s vital signs during the eight-hour process for signs of “rewarming shock,” when blood pressure drops suddenly and mysteriously. Once Barco was back at 98.6°, Bower removed her breathing tube and stopped giving her paralytic drugs and sedatives. Doctors also checked her heart rhythm with an electrocardiogram, but it was irregular. Afraid her heart was failing, they told her family that she might need a transplant. No one knew yet how her brain was faring, either.
Barco remained unconscious for four days. She started having problems breathing, so the breathing tube went back in. She fluttered in and out of consciousness for a couple days. She started grabbing her breathing tube to try to pull it out. Doctors had to put her in restraints.
Eventually, Barco awoke for hours at a time. At first, she would talk to her kids but forget the next day what she had said. As she improved, though, doctors found no lasting brain damage. They removed the breathing tube and implanted a defibrillator in her chest. She left the hospital three weeks later.
Slowly, the weight of what had happened to her settled in. Barco realized that she had literally been within feet of certain death. If she had collapsed somewhere where people couldn’t have found her, she might be gone. “I could’ve been in the bathroom, I could’ve been anywhere,” she says.
Abella believes that the more doctors learn to use hypothermia, the less of a death sentence those circumstances will be. In the past, doctors refused to bring back patients who had been clinically dead for more than an hour because they assumed that the brain damage would be debilitating. Now “hypothermia is beginning to change the boundaries for when we would consider someone lost, or beyond the hope of resuscitation,” Abella says. “Death was death. But it’s increasingly evident that even after the heart is stopped, a lot of biological activities are going on in the brain, heart and other tissues—so the tissues aren’t dead. It’s exciting, it’s really tremendous, but it’s really humbling.”
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.