Apparently, yes. Or, at least, our understanding of what constitutes death is too narrow, and there are things that can be done to resuscitate a person long after conventional CPR has failed. This is the experience of Sam Parnia, the head of the intensive care unit at Stony Brook University Hospital in New York. According to Parnia, patients in his ICU have a 33% chance of being brought back to life after their hearts stop beating, compared to a national average of 16%. And with new advances in research, he believes this percentage can climb much, much higher.
As reported by the Guardian,
The kind of CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) that we are familiar with from medical dramas – the frenzied pumping of the chest – remains rooted, Parnia claims, in its serendipitous discovery in 1960. It remains a haphazard kind of procedure, often performed more in hope than anticipation …
“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.
At the same time, it is necessary to keep up the level of oxygen in the blood. In Japan, this is already standard practice in emergency rooms. Using a technique called an ECMO, the blood of the deceased is siphoned out of the body, put through a membrane oxygenator and pumped round again. This buys the time needed to fix the underlying problem that caused the person to die in the first place. If the level of oxygen to the brain falls below 45% of normal the heart will not restart, Parnia’s research shows. Anything above that and there is a good chance.
Potentially, by this means, dead time can be extended to hours and there are still positive outcomes. “The longest I know of is a Japanese girl …,” Parnia says. “She had been dead for more than three hours. And she was resuscitated for six hours. Afterwards, she returned to life perfectly fine and has, I have been told, recently had a baby.”
Basically, what Parnia envisions–and what some doctors are already doing–is keeping the patient on ice after the heart stops beating, oxygenating the brain so it will not die, and then using surgery to fix whatever caused the patient to “die”. After the surgery is completed, doctors attempt to wake the patient up again. While this technique is not always successful, many patients have been resuscitated hours after their hearts have stopped beating and they have been pronounced “clinically dead”. Unfortunately, ECMO machines are still uncommon in the US and in most countries of the world, and many doctors prefer to stick with CPR, as this new technology raises some rather disturbing questions (for them) as to what constitutes life and death.
One question that still has not been answered is whether brain death is really the end. If there is no brain wave activity, can a person still be resuscitated? According to the current medical consensus, the answer is “no”, because it is believed that a person’s soul is chemically encoded into our brain cells. Thus, when the brain ceases to function, the soul must cease to function as well.
Parnia–a religious agnostic–is not so sure that this consensus is correct. He has been trying to collect evidence, in part by interviewing people they have resuscitated after being on the ECMO:
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. I ask what conclusions he has drawn.
He suggests he is agnostic about the source of these subjective memories, as he is about questions of mind and matter. “When I first got interested in these mind/body questions, I was astonished to find that no one had even begun to put forward a theory about exactly how neurons in the brain can generate thoughts,” he says. “We always assume that all scientists believe the brain produces the mind, but in fact there are plenty who are not certain of that. Even prominent neuroscientists, such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity. All I can say is what I have observed from my work. It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche, or soul – by which I don’t mean ghosts, I mean your individual self – persists for a least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which we might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self but it may not be the source or originator of it… I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind – I’m not saying it is magic or anything like that – is not neuronal.”
This leaves open the possibility that we might be able to resuscitate a person days after they have “died” using technology that has not yet been developed.
When I was young, everyone knew that it was scientifically impossible to live for eight hundred years. However, we now know scientifically that our bodies are programmed to die by the deterioration of the telemeres capping our DNA, and that in theory we could all live for centuries without suffering disease or growing old.
When I was young, everyone knew that it was scientifically impossible to resuscitate a person after the person had been dead for three days, yet we now know scientifically that under the right circumstances we our ourselves might be able to do this with technology that we have developed, without resorting to magic or miracles.
How many other “scientific” proofs against God and the Bible will be debunked before non-believers agree that faith is reasonable and rational after all, and not a leap into improvable irrationality? Or, is it a case that many people never really wanted to believe in God and the Bible in the first place, and were looking to science for an excuse to abandon faith? I suspect the later is more the truth, which means that no matter how much proof is offered, many people will never believe.