Sometimes I feel so easily influenced. Sanjay Gupta was so entertaining during his Colbert bump, I rushed right out and requested his book from the library. And Cheating Death: The Doctors and Medical Miracles that Are Saving Lives Against All Odds is totally worth the wait. The book spins out stunning tales, like the skier who plunged headfirst into an icy stream, leaving you on tenterhooks just long enough to fill in the background. In fact, the whole thing is framed on the story of one man who suffered a heart attack while jogging at a gym.
Most of the book is spent exploring the gray zone between life and death. When the heart stops, the oxygen stops flowing. The mind stops. The breath stops. The kidneys stop. The cells use up their oxygen and begin to break down. Worse, if oxygen is reintroduced, the cell membranes become more permeable and leak fluid, which is called reperfusion injury.
We see how cold can buy time, and how theurapeutic hypothermia has progressed from cold sheets and ice to the latest products. We learn that rescue breaths actually hurt in CPR. Since there oxygen stored in all the tissues, just keeping the blood moving keeps the brain alive. Money quote:
“How come every time I press on his chest, he opens his eyes, and every time I stop and breathe for him, he goes back to sleep?”
We explore stranger ways to hit the pause button inside the gray zone. Regarding those who have seen the white light and come back, there’s a brief discussion of near death experiences, mainly focusing on organic explanations, including (in the spirit of even-handedness) the idea that the brain is a receiver for god.
Things get really fuzzy trying to distinguish between unresponsive, coma, persistant vegetative state, or brain death. The book doesn’t quite come out and say it directly, but doctors really don’t know. And every time a coma story hits the news all we learn is that still, nobody knows.
The chapters about fetal surgery and medical miracles are more about trying to stay out of the gray zone in the first place, but it’s all interesting. About the worst thing I can say is the book is so entertaining, you’re not sure you could have learn anything. But it’s in there, in and out of the zone.