LVHN staff, paramedics save man after 10 hours of freezing
In a sophisticated, technologically advanced society, the age-old concept of miracles is often met with a sneer. However, physicians and staff at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Hazleton and Cedar Crest campuses, Justin Smith and the Smith family believe in those age-old concepts.
On Jan. 18, Smith, his family and his caregivers reunited at several hospital-sponsored news conferences to commemorate and to celebrate Smith’s return to health.
According to Dr. Brian Nester, D.O, MBA, FACOEP, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Health Network, “Using the word miracle to describe this outcome is not an exaggeration.”
Nester was referring to Justin Smith’s return to health after he froze for nearly 10 hours in sub-zero temperatures.
The ordeal began around 9:30 p.m. Feb. 20, 2015, after McAdoo, Carbon County, resident Justin Smith left Tresckow Fire Company where he had been socializing with friends. He had walked the two miles home numerous times.
Although the details of the incident remain unclear, Smith probably slipped and fell. He remained in a snowbank as the temps plunged to a frigid four degrees below zero until 7:30 a.m. the following morning when his father discovered him, lifeless and frozen. Don Smith believed he had lost his son.
A paramedic on the scene called LVHN-Hazleton’s emergency department anticipating Dr. Gerald Coleman, D.O., emergency medicine, assistant site director, would advise the first responders to forgo resuscitation. Instead, Coleman instructed the team to begin CPR and rush Smith to the emergency room.
Coleman elaborated: “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
For two hours, 15 members of the LVHN-Hazleton emergency room staff took turns doing continuous CPR.
Coleman then consulted Dr. James Wu, M.D., cardiothoracic surgeon at LVHN-Cedar Crest, who said, “If you get him down here, we’ll warm him up.”
By 9:50 a.m. Feb. 21, 2015, the decision had been made to transport Justin Smith by MedEvac helicopter to LVHN-Cedar Crest.
Tim Hickey, R.N., flight nurse, and Mark Hopwood, paramedic, performed 100 chest compressions a minute during the 18-minute transport.
At LVHN-Cedar Crest, Wu connected Smith to ECMO, a machine that warmed and circulated his blood. In what Wu describes as an “incredible” turn of events, early that evening Smith’s heart began beating independently.
With the warming process in place, Smith’s vital signs stabilized. He then was examined by Dr. John Castaldo, M.D., chief of Division of Neurology, LVHN.
At the press conference, Castaldo explained at normal body temperature, the human brain can survive undamaged for three to six minutes without oxygen. The lower the body temperature, the less oxygen the brain requires. He then stated that because “no one [else] in history has survived this degree of cold for this long and returned to normal life,” he felt little hope. Castaldo’s first examination of Smith seemed to confirm this assessment.
In the weeks that followed, Smith’s family remained tenaciously positive. The hospital staff provided continuous monitoring, care and support. Slowly but miraculously, Smith’s brain resumed to normal activity. Eventually, his lungs and kidneys became functional as well.
On March 31, 2015, two weeks after his 26th birthday, Smith was transferred to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital at LVHN-Muhlenberg. He returned home May 1, 2015.
Although the ordeal cost Smith his pinkie fingers and toes, it has not dampened his spirit. He once again plays golf, cheers on the Phillies and pursues a degree in psychology.
“I consider myself a miracle,” Smith said and credits his caregivers.
But Coleman, who made the crucial decision to attempt resuscitation, voices the feelings of many touched by Smith’s dramatic recovery.
“Never, ever underestimate the power of hope and prayer,” he said.
Smith’s story may be viewed on video by accessing LVHN.org/healthyyou.