Last year, there were widespread reports of a 53-year-old Frenchman who had suffered a cardiac arrest and "died," but was then resuscitated back to life 18 hours after his heart had stopped.
The once black-and-white line between life and death is now blurrier than ever.
This was thought to have been possible in part because his body had progressively cooled down naturally after his heart had stopped, through exposure to the outside cold. The medical team who revived him were reported as being "stupefied" that they had been able to bring him back to life, in particular since he had not even suffered brain damage.
Interestingly, this man represents one of a growing number of extraordinary cases in which people who would otherwise be declared dead have now been revived. It is a testament to the incredible impact of resuscitation science -- a science that is providing opportunities to literally reverse death, and in doing so, shedding light on the age-old question of what happens when we die.
Death: Past and Present
Throughout history, the boundary between life and death was marked by the moment a person's heart stopped, breathing ceased, and brain function shut down. A person became motionless, lifeless, and was deemed irreversibly dead. This is because once the heart stops beating, blood flow stops and oxygen is cut off from all the body's organs, including the brain. Consequently, within seconds, breathing stops and brain activity comes to a halt. Since the cessation of the heart literally occurs in a "moment," the philosophical notion of a specific point in time of "irreversible" death still pervades society today. The law, for example, relies on "time of death," which corresponds to when the heart stops beating.
The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in the 1960s was revolutionary, demonstrating that the heart could potentially be restarted after it had stopped, and what had been a clear black-and-white line was shown to be potentially reversible in some people. What was once called death—the ultimate end point— was now widely called cardiac arrest, and became a starting point.
From then on, it was only if somebody had requested not to be resuscitated or when CPR was deemed to have failed that people would be declared dead by "cardiopulmonary criteria." Biologically, cardiac arrest and death by cardiopulmonary criteria are the same process, albeit marked at different points in time depending on when a declaration of death is made.
The apparent irreversibility of death as we know it may not necessarily reflect true irretrievable cellular damage inside the body.
Clearly, contrary to many people's perceptions, cardiac arrest is not a heart attack; it is the final step in death irrespective of cause, whether it be a stroke, a heart attack, a car accident, an overwhelming infection or cancer. This is how roughly 95 percent of the population are declared dead.
The only exception is the small proportion of people who may have suffered catastrophic brain injuries, but whose hearts can be artificially kept beating for a period of time on life-support machines. These people can be legally declared dead based on brain death criteria before their hearts have stopped. This is because the brain can die either from oxygen starvation after cardiac arrest or from massive trauma and internal bleeding. Either way, the brain dies hours or possibly longer after these injuries have taken place and not just minutes.
A Profound Realization
What has become increasingly clear is that the apparent irreversibility of death as we know it may not necessarily reflect true irretrievable cellular damage inside the body. This is consistent with a mounting understanding: it is only after a person actually dies that the cells in the body start to undergo their own process of death. Intriguingly, this process is something that can now be manipulated through medical intervention. Being cold is one of the factors that slows down the rate of cellular decay. The 53-year-old Frenchman's case and the other recent cases of resuscitation after prolonged periods of time illustrate this new understanding.
Last week's earth-shattering announcement by neuroscientist Dr. Nenad Sestan and his team out of Yale, published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, provides further evidence that a time gap exists between actual death and cellular death in cadavers. In this seminal study, these researchers were able to restore partial function in pig brains four hours after their heads were severed from their bodies. These results follow from the pioneering work in 2001 of geneticist Fred Gage and colleagues from the Salk Institute, also published in Nature, which demonstrated the possibility of growing human brain cells in the laboratory by taking brain biopsies from cadavers in the mortuary up to 21 hours post-mortem.
The once black-and-white line between life and death is now blurrier than ever. Some people may argue this means these humans and pigs weren't truly "dead." However, that is like saying the people who were guillotined during the French Revolution were also not dead. Clearly, that is not the case. They were all dead. The problem is not death; it's our reliance on an outdated philosophical, rather than biological, notion of death.
Death can no longer be considered an absolute moment but rather a process that can be reversed even many hours after it has taken place.
But the distinction between irreversibility from a medical perspective and biological irreversibility may not matter much from a pragmatic perspective today. If medical interventions do not exist at any given time or place, then of course death cannot be reversed.
However, it is crucial to distinguish between biologically and medically: When "irreversible" loss of function arises due to inadequate treatment, then a person could be potentially brought back in the future when an alternative therapy becomes available, or even today if he or she dies in a location where novel treatments can slow down the rate of cell death. However, when true irreversible loss of function arises from a biological perspective, then no treatment will ever be able to reverse the process, whether today, tomorrow, or in a hundred years.
Probing the "Grey Zone"
Today, thanks to modern resuscitation science, death can no longer be considered an absolute moment but rather a process that can be reversed even many hours after it has taken place. How many hours? We don't really know.
One of the wider implications of our medical advances is that we can now study what happens to the human mind and consciousness after people enter the "grey zone," which marks the time after the heart stops, but before irreversible and irretrievable cell damage occurs, and people are then brought back to life. Millions have been successfully revived and many have reported experiencing a unique, universal, and transformative mental state.
Were they "dead"? Yes, according to all the criteria we have ever used. But they were able to be brought back before their "dead" bodies had reached the point of permanent, irreversible cellular damage. This reflects the period of death for all of us. So rather than a "near-death experience," I prefer a new terminology to describe these cases -- "an actual-death experience." These survivors' unique experiences are providing eyewitness testimonies of what we will all be likely to experience when we die.
Such an experience reportedly includes seeing a warm light, the presence of a compassionate perfect individual, deceased relatives, a review of their lives, a judgment of their actions and intentions as they pertain to their humanity, and in some cases a sensation of seeing doctors and nurses working to resuscitate them.
Are these experiences compatible with hallucinations or illusions? No -- in part, because these people have described real, verifiable events, which, by definition are not hallucinations, and in part, because their experiences are not compatible with confused and delirious memories that characterize oxygen deprivation.
The challenge for us scientifically is understanding how this is possible at a time when all our science tells us the brain shuts down.
For instance, it is hard to classify a structured meaningful review of one's life and one's humanity as hallucinatory or illusory. Instead, these experiences represent a new understanding of the overall human experience of death. As an intensive care unit physician for more than 10 years, I have seen numerous cases where these reports have been corroborated by my colleagues. In short, these survivors have been known to come back with reports of full consciousness, with lucid, well-structured thought processes and memory formation.
The challenge for us scientifically is understanding how this is possible at a time when all our science tells us the brain shuts down. The fact that these experiences occur is a paradox and suggests the undiscovered entity we call the "self," "consciousness," or "psyche" – the thing that makes us who we are - may not become annihilated at the point of so-called death.
At New York University, the State University of New York, and across 20 hospitals in the U.S. and Europe, we have brought together a new multi-disciplinary team of experts across many specialties, including neurology, cardiology, and intensive care. Together, we hope to improve cardiac arrest prevention and treatment, as well as to address the impact of new scientific discoveries on our understanding of what happens at death.
One of our first studies, Awareness during Resuscitation (AWARE), published in the medical journal Resuscitation in 2014, confirmed that some cardiac arrest patients report a perception of awareness without recall; others report detailed memories and experiences; and a few report full auditory and visual awareness and consciousness of their experience, from a time when brain function would be expected to have ceased.
While you probably have some opinion or belief about this based upon your own philosophical, religious, or cultural background, you may not realize that exploring what happens when we die is now a subject that science is beginning to investigate.
There is no question more intriguing to humankind. And for the first time in our history, we may finally uncover some real answers.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."