- Edmonton math teacher Dan O'Reilly was nearer to death
than life after being pulled from the waters off Mexico.
- Airlifted to Houston, Mr. O'Reilly, 53, had a 1 per cent
chance of surviving, emergency room doctors at St. Luke's Hospital figured
when he was brought in.
- For up to 45 minutes, Mr. O'Reilly was without adequate
oxygen. Though he was hooked up quickly to a life-support machine in Houston,
his doctor, Joseph Varon, said it almost made more sense to pull the plug.
- But it was the sheer hopelessness of Mr. O'Reilly's condition
that may have saved him.
- Dr. Varon, an emergency-room specialist, said because
there was no reasonable expectation of survival, he made the decision to
drop Mr. O'Reilly's temperature to a hypothermic state.
- "The only reason we didn't declare him formally
brain dead was he was taking one breath every minute. Mr. O'Reilly had
absolutely no reflexes. He had convulsions, which is usually one of the
worst prognostics you can have in those circumstances," Dr. Varon
- When someone bumps their head or bruises an ankle, doctors
advise cooling the area to reduce swelling. On a larger scale, hypothermia
puts a damaged body in hibernation, the theory being that in a cooled-down
state, the body has time to heal itself.
- With Mr. O'Reilly, Dr. Varon began using special cooling
blankets and placing ice packs on his chest, groin and neck area to lower
- Dr. Varon dropped Mr. O'Reilly's temperature from its
normal 37 C to 32 degrees and kept him in that state for three days, an
unusually long time for hypothermic treatment, which is normally done for
just 24 hours.
- "I had nothing to lose for extending the therapy
for that long and I had much to gain," said Dr. Varon. "At the
end of the three days, we began warming him up and . . . it was great to
see that he had recovered."
- Dr. Varon said he had no idea that the treatment would
work so well for Mr. O'Reilly, who woke up from his coma three days after
arriving in the hospital, suffering only from minor brain injuries.
- Mr. O'Reilly, who has been back in Canada since mid-January
and is now undergoing rehabilitation at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital
in Edmonton, said the wave that thrust him deep into the Pacific sand off
Ixtapa damaged his spinal cord and lungs.
- A vacationing nurse from Coquitlam immediately began
CPR on the beach, which saved his life. The decision by Dr. Varon to chill
his body, Mr. O'Reilly believes, prevented him from having permanent brain
- "Dr. Varon came into my room and said there was
only a one-in-a-million chance that I would have made it," the math
teacher said. Mr. O'Reilly has regained partial use of his arms and legs,
and hopes to return home by the beginning of April.
- Gordon Giesbrecht, a research scientist at the University
of Manitoba and an authority on hypothermia, said cooling the body's temperature
reduces the oxygen needed for life functions. The treatment is done for
- "The reason why the brain is able to survive longer
is when you cool the brain, it decreases the metabolic requirements, which
means your oxygen can last longer," said Dr. Giesbrecht.
- While for decades hypothermia has been used occasionally
as a treatment, there are few clinical studies that show it is a consistently
efficient way of treating injuries or trauma.
- Dr. Daniel Sessler at the University of Louisville said
the risk of infection increases the longer a patient stays in a hypothermic
- For cardiopulmonary bypass surgeries, a patient's temperature
can be lowered to 18 degrees.
- "It is worth doing if you are saving brain tissue,
and there is no other choice," said Dr. Sessler. "But the $64,000
question is: 'Does it work?' And it clearly does in animal studies, but
humans are more complicated."
- Dr. Sessler said two studies have shown that hypothermia
is effective in cardiac arrests, but two other studies failed to demonstrate
protection in brain surgery and traumatic brain injury using hypothermic
treatment. Just because it worked for one patient, he said, doesn't mean
hypothermia therapy would work for everyone.
- © Copyright 2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
All Rights Reserved.