Anyone with a high-school level chemistry education can tell you that when the temperature gets colder, reactions happen more slowly. The same principle applies to reactions within our bodies: the reactions within our cells are slower if our bodies are colder. This means that our cells need less oxygen if we are able to reduce our body temperature. It can also explain why people who fall into icy rivers and lakes have a better chance at being revived thirty minutes later than someone who falls into a lake in the middle of summertime.
Doctors are well aware of high-school kinetics. Sometimes, before a lengthy surgery, body temperature is lowered using ice packs and the process of circulating blood through a cooling system to buy time. This process, however, takes plenty of time and preparation. And when someone enters the ER with a traumatic injury and is losing blood rapidly, cooling them down slowly isn’t an option.
However, this could all be solved in the near future, because in May 2014 doctors at UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Pittsburgh began human trials of “suspended animation”, using gunshot victims with likely fatal injuries as subjects. In an effort to buy time, doctors replace the wounded patients’ blood with a saline solution, which cools down the body and nearly brings cellular activity to a halt.
Saline coursing through someone’s veins means no breathing and no brain activity – also known as death. Yet the cells stay alive: working slowly, but working nonetheless. After a couple hours of life-saving operation, doctors put blood back into the patient so that they warm up and literally come back to life.
Dr. Hasan Alam of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston performed this suspended animation procedure on pigs with a ninety-percent success rate. He is hopeful regarding human trials and told The Sydney Morning Herald back in 2006, "Once the heart starts beating and the blood starts pumping, voila, you've got another animal that's come back from the other side… Technically, I think we can do it in humans.”
Right now, suspended animation will only be performed if the patient is deemed to have a seven percent chance of survival or less. Dr. Rhee, who also did experiments reviving pigs, clearly believes human trials are long overdue.
“After we did those experiments, the definition of ‘dead’ changed,” says Rhee. “Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It’s frustrating to know there’s a solution.”
A saline solution, to be precise.