We will soon be able to bring the dead back to life

In a scenario eerily reminiscent of the science fiction horror film The Lazarus Effect, a renowned heart specialist says that we will soon be able to bring the dead back to life. Dr Sam Parnia, American critical care physician who trained in London, claims that modern techniques and medical advances mean that in a near future a patient could be revived up to 24 hours after they stop breathing. Dr Parnia was quoted as saying: “We may soon be rescuing people from death’s clutches hours, or even longer, after they have actually died.”

Dr Parnia goes on claiming that the actor James Gandolfini, star of The Sopranos – who recently died in Rome aged 51 – might have survived if he had suffered his massive heart attack in New York. “I believe if he died here, he could still be alive. We’d cool him down, pump oxygen to the tissues, which prevents them from dying,” said Dr Parnia, before elaborating further: “Clinically dead, he could then be cared for by the cardiologist. He would make an angiogram, find the clot, take it out, put in a stent and we would restart the heart.”

The specialist, whose new book on resuscitation science even bears the same title as the aforementioned sci-fi horror film – The Lazarus Effect, and is subtitled ‘The Science that is Erasing the Boundaries Between Life and Death’, says death should be literally ‘reversible’ for many patients, providing they are in the right place and receiving the right treatment. “Of course we can’t rescue everybody and many people with heart attacks have other major problems,” he says. “But if all the latest medical technologies and training had been implemented, which clearly hasn’t been done, then in principle the only people who should die and stay dead are those that have an underlying condition that is untreatable. A heart attack is treatable. Blood loss as well. A terminal cancer isn’t, neither are many infections with multi-resistant pathogens. In these cases, even if we’d restart the heart, it would stop again. My basic message: The death we commonly perceive today is a death that can be reversed.”

You could call that resurrection, if you will. But I still call it resuscitation science.

Dr Parnia, who is a head of intensive care at the Stony Brook University Hospital in New York, says resuscitation figures tell their own story. The average rate for successful resuscitation after cardiac arrest is only 18% in US hospitals and mere 16% in UK. But at his hospital it is whooping 33% – and the rate even recently peaked at 38%. “Most, but not all of our patients get discharged with no neurological damage whatsoever,” he says, before adding that it is a “widely held misconception” – even among doctors – that the brain begins to suffer massive damage from oxygen deprivation three to five minutes after the heart stops. “In the past decade we have seen tremendous progress. With today’s medicine, we can bring people back to life up to one, maybe two hours, sometimes even longer, after their heart stopped beating and they have thus died by circulatory failure. In the future, we will likely get better at reversing death.”

The technique Dr Parnia advocates is not cryonics – freezing the body of the patient immediately after death – but rather cooling it down to best preserve brain cells while keeping up the level of oxygen in the blood. This buys crucial time doctors need to fix the underlying problem and restart the heart. He says that if someone collapses with a heart attack, an emergency call should be followed by immediately placing ice or bags of frozen vegetables on the sufferer to help protect the brain until the ambulance arrives. Dr Parnia concludes: “It is possible that in 20 years, we may be able to restore people to life 12 hours or maybe even 24 hours after they have died. You could call that resurrection, if you will. But I still call it resuscitation science.”