Doctors to Suspend 'Trauma' Patients Then Revive Them Back to Life

For the first time ever, doctors are about to put humans in a state of suspended animation to buy time and save more lives. Ayesha Salim speaks with Dr. Peter Rhee, a former battlefield surgeon for the U.S. military and leading innovator in this field to find out more.

A doctor freezing a person in order to reanimate them later sounds crazy. At least that’s what I thought. But as it turns out I couldn’t be more wrong. A team of doctors have come up with a groundbreaking technique that can put fatally injured patients into a state of suspended animation and revive them slowly back to life.  

In Between Life & Death

“Normally when we think of someone as being dead, it’s when your heart stops and your blood is not getting into your brain. We know we can create a state like that where it is reversible,” Dr. Peter Rhee tells me over the phone from Arizona.

“The technique works by artificially killing the patient by cooling the heart and brain really quickly; taking the blood out and replacing it with a much cheaper solution than blood which carries drugs in it that will stop your metabolism. Under a controlled setting when you cool the brain temperature down then it buys you a little bit of time and we can still bring you back to life.” Rhee adds.

Many of the patients that come into the trauma center are near-death, but what about patients that have actually died? Can this technique revive a dead person?

Rhee: “I think you can but it depends on that definition of ‘passing away’. If you were shot two days ago and they brought you in we wouldn’t do that because we wouldn’t have a chance. But we think we have about 15 minutes from the last time we could feel your blood pressure to go in there and still see if we can bring you back.”

Buying Time to Save More Lives

Even if there are disputes about what counts as actually ‘being dead’, the possibility of bringing someone back 15 minutes later is pretty incredible. But this technique serves a much larger purpose than some dodgy sci-fi movie. For Rhee, it is about buying time to save more patients’ lives. Something our current medical technology lacks.

Rhee: “The problem with the current technology and current methodology is that it only works about one out of 20 times. Or 5%.  So 19 of the 20 times it’s a lost cause and we have no hope.”

“As we try to figure out ways to pump the blood to keep you alive while we try to stop the bleeding – that can be a very challenging task.”  Rhee says.

How effective will this technique be in a trauma setting?

Rhee: “The concept has already been proven so it is just a matter of: can we actually do that at a moment’s notice when you are not ready?”

Proven Concept Tested On Pigs

Rhee has dedicated a large amount of his life to researching and developing this technique. He tells me about his time in the military and how he was first asked to look into suspended animation. At first he thought it was a crazy idea, but soon changed his stance once he started testing it on pigs and to his surprise, found continual success.

“We would take a large man-sized pig, about 175 pounds, create an injury that made it bleed to death and then after it had bled to death, we would go into the chest and instead of trying to stop the bleeding we would infuse very cold solutions with high amounts of potassium in it. Normally when you inject potassium into the body, it kills the cells immediately and your heart and your brain stops immediately.”

“So we did that, and then we would go to lunch, come back and take out the potassium, rinse it out of the body through the blood vessels. And we would start to warm [the pig] slowly and give blood back and then we found that the pigs were slowly coming back to life. We found that time period of [the pig] being dead, meaning the beginning of us giving [the pig] potassium and when we started to warm [the pig] could be as long as two to three hours.” Rhee tells me.

Rhee, along with his team of surgeons feels that the concept has been tested enough on pigs - and it is time to take it to the next stage – humans.  But what are the risks involved in using this technique on humans?

“The risk is that if you do it on somebody that has already suffered brain damage because the blood flow has not been going there for too long then you might bring back somebody who’s [brain damaged].”

“When we first started doing this, [we showed] that our survival rates with the animals were very good, meaning that it was closer to 80-90% and that the pigs were perfectly normal and behaved normally.” Rhee adds.

But Rhee says that his team initially faced some criticism from the scientific community as they had not done any cognitive and memory testing. But this was soon corrected as a series of tests showed that ‘that the animals that underwent this procedure had the same learning capability and also had the memory of what they were taught before the procedure as well’.

Is there a certain time period you have to adhere too when bringing somebody out of suspended animation – where you can’t keep them in that state for too long?

“Yes. [In the case of the pigs] when we cooled the pigs down we found that 10 degrees Celsius was the ideal temperature of the brain. When we took them down to 10 degrees we found that we could do it with a couple of hours of suspended animation which is more than ample time to get things fixed as a surgeon."

The Next Phase for Suspended Animation

Rhee has bigger plans for the suspended animation technique. In the future he hopes to be able to put organs from other humans or animals into the body as well. He admits it might sound crazy but not impossible.

“About 50 years ago we didn’t have cellphones; we didn’t have the capability of taking a heart from a dead person and putting it into a dying person. Right now we have organ transplants and cellphones with GPS, computers and cars. All those things are completely revolutionary.”

Rhee also hopes to be able to use specific drugs to extend the time before revival.

“That’s where we are hoping to get to - where we can put your body into a hibernation type of stage where there are not using any oxygen or nutrients - therefore they do not go through the dying death phase.”

The suspended animation technique is not just limited to specific wounds. As Rhee explains:

“We did a series of experiments where we caused additional types of injuries and were able to show that even if you have blood vessel injuries, intestinal injuries, solid organ injuries, these were all repairable under this state which is done without bleeding and that we were able to recover the animals to a fully functional neurological state.”

The Human Trials

Rhee tells me it was Peter Safar, inventor of CPR and originator of the idea, who wrote up the grant and got it approved by government. Rhee has been working for six years to get this into the human trial phase. There are five universities that have signed on to do this. One of them is Rhee’s: the University of Arizona in Tucson. The other four are: the University of Oregon, University of Pittsburgh, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Baltimore trauma center.

“Baltimore trauma center is one of the busiest trauma centers so we have decided that we are going to do the pilot trial there before we move on to the other institutions.”

How will the trial work? How many patients will you be testing on?

“This will be a huge learning curve.  The entire staff of trauma surgeons at Baltimore have been trained. We are going to try it on 10 people who have come into the hospital already dead - so we know that as the survival rate is so low, we have nothing to lose.”

Rhee tells me that they decided to go with saline as the cold solutions choice as the regulating bodies might not approve too radical of an idea.

 How long is this trial expected to last?

“We have been given about a year to do the initial trial period at Baltimore and we are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping they can pull it off for the rest of mankind.”

Finally, I ask Rhee if it all goes well, how he sees the future for suspended animation.

“If we are able to save even 10 lives a year in the trauma center that’s still significant.”

Rhee firmly believes that suspended animation will become another crucial tool in the fight to save lives.


Ayesha Salim is eContent Writer at IDG Connect


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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