His name is Sam Parnia. He’s a British MD now working in the intensive care unit of Stony Brook University Hospital. And he’s convinced that many doctors and emergency-care units give up on patients in cardiac arrest long before they should.
Parnia, you see, has returned people to among the living hours after they were pronounced dead. DEAD. As in Alex Rodriguez’s career.
“Most doctors will do CPR for 20 minutes and then stop,” he says. “The decision to stop is completely arbitrary but it is based on an instinct that after that time brain damage is very likely and you don’t want to bring people back into a persistent vegetative state. But if you understand all the things that are going on in the brain in those minutes – as we now can – then you can minimise that possibility. There are numerous studies that show that if you implement all the various resuscitation steps together you not only get a doubling of your survival rates but the people who come back are not brain damaged.”
In Parnia’s ideal world, the way that people are resuscitated would first take in the knowledge that machines are much better at CPR than doctors. After that, he suggests, the next step is “to understand that you need to elevate the level of care”. The first thing is to cool down the body to best preserve the brain cells, which are by then in the process of apoptosis, or suicide.
I hope you’re taking notes, because there will be a test at the end of this post.
By a conservative extrapolation, Parnia believes the relatively cheap and straightforward methods he uses to restore vital processes could save up to 40,000 American lives a year and maybe 10,000 British ones. Not surprisingly Parnia, who was trained in the UK and moved to the US in 2005, is frustrated that the medical establishment seems slow and reluctant to listen to these figures. He has written a book in the hope of spreading the word.
The Lazarus Effect is nothing short of an attempt to recast our understanding of death, based on Parnia’s intimate knowledge of the newly porous nature of the previously “undiscovered country from which no traveller returns”. His work in resuscitation has led him logically to wider questions of what constitutes being and not being. In particular, he asks what exactly happens, if you are lying dead before resuscitation, to your individual self and all its attendant character and memories – your “soul”, as he is not shy to call it – before it is eventually restored to you a few hours later?
I thought there was a light. You’re supposed to go into the light. Or step away from the light. Just don’t turn off the light. Although, what am I, married to Con Edison?
The other strand of Parnia’s research, in which he leads a team at Southampton University, is into what most people tend to call “near-death experiences” and what he calls “actual death experiences”. Parnia has talked to many people about what they recall experiencing while they were dead in his intensive care unit. About half claim to have clear recollections, many of which involve looking down on the surgical team at work on their body or the familiar image of a bright threshold or tunnel of light into which they were being drawn. Parnia has been collecting detailed accounts of these experiences for four years. . . .
Does he have a religious faith?
“No,” he says, “and I don’t have any religious way into this. But what I do know is that every area of inquiry that used to be tackled by religion or philosophy is now tackled and explained by science. One of the last things to be looked at in this way is the question of what happens when we die. This science of resuscitation allows us to look at that for the first time.”
Anyone who has sat through one of those PBS life-coach lectures for more than 15 minutes knows what it is to be clinically dead, only to brought back to life for one of their interminable fundraising pitches. And anyone who has talked to a sociologist for more than 15 minutes knows that zombies live among us.
Also: what does it mean to be really dead? No brain activity for how long? As long as it takes to write a column for Salon? No measurable heart beat? What, like my high school history teacher? No respiratory function? Like me after climbing a flight of stairs?
When this guy can bring somebody back from the dead after three days, I’ll buy his book. In the King James translation. Until then, God bless his amazing work as an intensive care physician. I’m sure there are many previously “deceased” people out there grateful for his gifts. But spare me the wacky tales of the undead. I promise you: they’ll all amount to a ball of string. You know: you collect more string and more string and more string and before you know it — you have a really big ball of string.