This is Your Brain on Ice

Tawana Sample remembers only that she was in the hospital, in labor with her first child, when she "died."

Her heart had stopped, and stayed the way, for more than 40 minutes.

"When your heart stops for such a long period of time," said critical care specialist Dr. Omar Lateef, "you're by definition essentially, you're dead."

The cause of her heart stoppage is not known for sure.  But after saving her baby with an emergency C-Section, doctors at Rush University Medical Center worked furiously to re-start Tawana's heart.  Finally, after six jolts with a defibrillator, her heart began pumping again.   Then the biggest concern was if a lack of oxygen to her brain would cause irreversible brain damage.

"They told me I wasn't going to make it because I'd be 99.9% brain dead," said Tawana.   Instead, Tawana survived her ordeal without any physical or mental problems, thanks to a machine which cooled her body after she'd been resuscitated, while she was  in a coma.

Her body temperature fell about nine degrees fahrenheit, for 24 hours, dramatically reducing the damaging effects of oxygen loss to her brain cells.

"In many of the studies that looked at this there was a 20% benefit to patients who received hypothermia versus patients who did not receive hypothermia," said  Dr. Richard Temes, who began the treatment for Tawana.   But not all hospitals have cooling devices.

Despite the fact that these cooling machines are relatively inexpensive for major hospitals,  "Eighty Percent of hospitals that should be doing this are not," said Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Dr. Richard Bernstein.

Cities like New York, Seattle, and many others in Europe, have ambulences carrying cardiac arrest patients bypass hospitals without the cooling therapies, in favor of hospitals which do have the system.   In Illinois, however, the law still requires EMS crews with these patients to go to the nearest hospital, whether it has a cooling device or not.  It's a law that many doctors would like changed.

"The nearest hospital is not always the right solution," said Dr. Temes.  "you want to get to the nearest hospital that has the expertise and skill to care for that condition." 

Dr. Temes hopes to organize a committee to push for new legislation.  Added Dr. Bernstein, "It takes a champion and some pressure from patient advocacy groups to make it happen."

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