UA Doc's Work Changes the Definition of "Dead"

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New Scientist takes a look at the work of UA trauma doc Peter Rhee and his colleagues, who is exploring a new technique of saving lives by putting people in a form of suspended animation.

Rhee, who was one of the trauma docs on duty during the 2011 shooting rampage at Gabby Giffords' Congress on Your Corner, has been testing the concept since 2000:

The technique was first demonstrated in pigs in 2000 by Rhee and his colleagues. The animals were sedated and a massive haemorrhage induced, to mimic the effect of multiple gunshot wounds. Their blood was drained and replaced by either a cold potassium or saline solution, rapidly cooling the body to around 10 °C. After the injuries were treated, the animals were gradually warmed up as the solution was replaced with blood.
Vital signs

The pig's heart usually started beating again by itself, although some pigs needed a jump-start. There was no effect on physical or cognitive function.

"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."

New Scientist reports that the process will be tested in Pittsburgh:

Neither dead or alive, knife-wound or gunshot victims will be cooled down and placed in suspended animation later this month, as a groundbreaking emergency technique is tested out for the first time.

Surgeons are now on call at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to perform the operation, which will buy doctors time to fix injuries that would otherwise be lethal.

"We are suspending life, but we don't like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction," says Samuel Tisherman, a surgeon at the hospital, who is leading the trial. "So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation."

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