Health Technology

Killing a Patient to Save His Life

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Trauma patients arriving at an emergency room here after sustaining a gunshot or knife wound may find themselves enrolled in a startling medical experiment. Surgeons will drain their blood and replace it with freezing saltwater. Without heartbeat and brain activity, the patients will be clinically dead. And then the surgeons will try to save their lives.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center have begun a clinical trial that pushes the boundaries of conventional surgery — and, some say, medical ethics. By inducing hypothermia and slowing metabolism in dying patients, doctors hope to buy valuable time in which to mend the victims’ wounds.

But scientists have never tried anything like this in humans, and the unconscious patients will not be able to consent to the procedure. Indeed, the medical center has been providing free bracelets to be worn by skittish citizens here who do not want to participate should they somehow wind up in the E.R.

“This is ‘Star Wars’ type stuff,” said Dr. Thomas M. Scalea, a trauma specialist at the University of Maryland. “If you told people we would be doing this a few years ago, they’d tell you to stop smoking whatever you’re smoking, because you’ve clearly lost your mind.”

At normal body temperatures, surgeons have less than five minutes to restore blood flow before brain damage occurs. People can survive for hours with little or no oxygen if their bodies are kept cold.Patients are routinely cooled before surgical procedures that involve stopping the heart. But so-called therapeutic hypothermia has never been tried in patients in which a penetrative wound has already occurred, until now. At normal body temperatures, surgeons typically have less than five minutes to restore blood flow before brain damage occurs – this will give them up to an hour.

After the operation, the team will use a heart-lung bypass machine with a heat exchanger to return blood to the patient. The blood will warm the body gradually, which should circumvent injuries that can happen when tissue is suddenly subjected to oxygen after a period of deprivation.

If the procedure works, the patient’s heart should resume beating when body temperature reaches 85 to 90 degrees. But regaining consciousness may take several hours or several days.

Trauma accounts for more years of life lost than cancer and heart disease combined, and it is the leading cause of death in people up to age 44, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Surgeons are eager for new techniques that would help better the odds in emergency situations.

In order to obtain an exemption to federal informed consent rules, the hospital held two town hall meetings on the university campus, placed advertisements on buses, and made sure the news got in newspapers catering to minority readers. Nearly a half-dozen trauma hospitals may join the trial and begin testing the hypothermia procedure on dying patients, including the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.


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“Killing a Patient to Save His Life”