Sam Parnia has a highly sought-after medical specialty: resurrection. His patients can be dead for several hours before they are restored to their former selves, with decades of life ahead of them.
Parnia is head of intensive care at the Stony Brook University Hospital in New York. If you had had a cardiac arrest at Parnia’s hospital last year and undergone resuscitation, you would have had a 33 percent chance of being brought back from death. In an average US hospital, that figure would have fallen to 16 percent and (though the data is patchy) about the same, or less, if your heart were to have stopped beating in a British hospital.
By a conservative extrapolation, Parnia believes the relatively cheap and straightforward methods he uses to restore vital processes could save up to 40,000 US lives a year and maybe 10,000 British ones. Not surprisingly, Parnia, who was trained in the UK and moved to the US in 2005, is frustrated that the medical establishment seems slow and reluctant to listen to these figures. He has written a book in the hope of spreading the word.
The Lazarus Effect is nothing short of an attempt to recast our understanding of death, based on Parnia’s intimate knowledge of the newly porous nature of the previously “undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.”
His work in resuscitation has led him logically to wider questions of what constitutes being and not being. In particular, he asks what exactly happens, if you are lying dead before resuscitation, to your individual self and all its attendant character and memories — your “soul,” as he is not shy to call it — before it is eventually restored to you a few hours later?
When I meet Parnia, he is not long off the plane from New York after a night flight with his wife and baby daughter, and the particular revival he is craving is the miracle of strong coffee. He is both forthright and softly spoken, full of careful zeal for his findings. As I sit across the table from him, he can make even the most extraordinary claim seem calmly rational.
“It is my belief that anyone who dies of a cause that is reversible should not really die any more,” he says. “That is: Every heart attack victim should no longer die. I have to be careful when I state that because people will say: ‘My husband has died recently and you are saying that need not have happened,’ but the fact is heart attacks themselves are quite easily managed. If you can manage the process of death properly then you go in, take out the clot, put a stent in, the heart will function in most cases. And the same with infections, pneumonia or whatever. People who don’t respond to antibiotics in time, we could keep them there for a while longer [after they had died] until they did respond.”
Parnia’s belief is backed up by his experience at the margin of life and death in intensive care units for the past two decades — he did his training at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals in central London — and particularly in the past five years or so, when most of the advances in resuscitation have occurred. Those advances — most notably the drastic cooling of the corpse to slow neuronal deterioration, and the monitoring and maintenance of oxygen levels to the brain — have not yet become accepted possibilities in the medical profession. Parnia is on a mission to change that.