For centuries, doctors have considered a person to be dead once their heart stops beating. But according to Dr. Sam Parnia of SUNY's Stony Brook University, even after someone's heart has stopped and their brain is no longer active, they can be brought back to life. In Dr. Parnia's own words, "death is reversible."
He may sound crazy, but he has numbers to back him. Reactivating someone's heart, most commonly done with CPR, is called resuscitation. The average resuscitation rate in the US and UK is around 17%. At Dr. Parnia's hospital, the rate is around 35% — and increasing.
How? The science of resuscitation has become a specialized field, one that not many doctors know much about. Dr. Parnia, however, not only knows the science, but has turned it into an art. The very first thing he tells people inquiring about resuscitation is that the idea that brain cells began rapidly dying a few minutes after the heart stops is nonsense. It takes hours for brain cells to wither, he says, but those hours are crucial.
When resuscitating a patient, Dr. Parnia first cools down the body to slow cell decay. He then performs specific chest compressions, delivering eight breaths a minute. If the patient's health issue is lingering, he performs the operation alongside the compressions, and when the operation is over, he restarts the heart. In a third of the cases, Dr. Parnia brings the dead back to life — sometimes hours after they have died.
Obviously, there are limitations on the resuscitations he can perform. In general, Dr. Parnia only performs resuscitations on healthy, middle-aged-or-younger people with singular health issues, such as a heart attack or blood loss. He also performs them immediately after someone has passed away, giving him more time to perform critical operations.
Still, with his incredible success rate, Dr. Parnia is convinced that we could soon be reviving people as much as 24 hours after they have passed away. His new book, Erasing Death, is aimed at spreading knowledge of resuscitation science to doctors who have long ago written it off as quackery.
This story of science should show us that we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding even the most basic of bodily functions, and that sciences that were popular long ago might be revisited today to better results. We can all applaud Dr. Parnia for persevering in a field that many dismissed, thereby saving countless lives.
But it also brings up an interesting question: what happens to people in the state between life and death? They're not really dead if they can come back to life, but if their heart and brain aren't functioning, then they're also not truly alive. In his research on resuscitation, Dr. Parnia has unknowingly tapped into an entirely new state of existence that we're only just beginning to even acknowledge, much less explore. This isn't just a medical breakthrough, but a religious, spiritual, and humanistic one, and we'll probably be hearing about it for decades to come.