Justin Smith is one lucky guy. At age 26 he is a medical anomaly and a survivor to the coldest known body temperatures. February 25, 2015 is a day that Justin will never fully remember yet never forget. He was just going out with his friends to the bars the night before and that was the last he was seen for approximately 12 hours. Justin was located the following morning lying face up on a snowbank after a night of temperatures reported by the local newspaper at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. He was immediately presumed dead because a pulse wasn’t identified and the scene was full of police and coroners. Justin’s body temperature didn’t even register on a digital thermometer- it was so low, that it’s not supposed to be possible to survive a situation like this. However, as Dr. Gerald Coleman mentions in the medical industry, there is a saying, “you have to be warm to be pronounced”.
As Emmett Thompson reported from the initial scene, “We’re on scene with…ah…a twenty-five year old male who was found laying on the snowbank unresponsive. Pulse was apenic, and ah, core temperature would not register with a tympanic thermometer. All signs lead to, lead us to believe, he’s been dead for a considerable amount of time.”
The flight team proceeded to give him CPR throughout the 18 minute ride to Lehigh Valley Hospital, alternating in two minute shifts between flying and CPR.
In this scenario, luckily Dr. Gerald Coleman, the emergency department physician on duty, felt uncomfortable pronouncing him while he was still cold, so he asked for Smith to be helicoptered to Lehigh Valley Hospital. Despite the fact that it might be an entirely futile effort, the entire medical staff at Lehigh gave their best efforts. Dr. Coleman thought of giving Justin a potassium test, since the presence of potassium is vital for the communication between nerves and muscles (including in the heart). A high concentration would reflect heart muscle activity that is significantly reduced- however Justin’s results came back normal.
Using a technique known as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation)- oxygenated and warm blood were passed into Smiths heart and the rest of his body. Despite the odds, his heart began to “fibrillate” or begin to quiver. Medical staff was able to shock his heart into restarting. Ventilators were used to breathe for him and the ECMO operation was continued. The next question posed itself- what about brain activity? Scans designed to pick up on the electrical signals that reflect neurological activity came back entirely normal. He awoke from his coma approximately a month later, and other than the minor (in comparison to the whole fiasco) loss was his two pinky fingers and all of his toes due to the prolonged state of frostbite, he emerged from the entire fiasco completely healthy.
It’s truly a miracle that Justin Smith is still with us and was able to recover from this hypothermia induced state in full health. Perhaps this is some insight to what will be possible in the future with cryogenics and other amazing medical procedures.