A Pennsylvania man’s tale of survival is drawing attention to the dangers of cold weather exposure after a walk home in subzero temperatures left him unconscious, with no pulse when he was found in the snow the following day.
Justin Smith, 26, was walking home in below freezing temperatures after having a few beers with friends last winter when he blacked out, according to the Lehigh Valley Health Network. The college student was in the snow for hours as temperatures plunged to 4 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
He wasn’t found until the next morning, when his father Don Smith saw his son lying by the road.
“He was blue [in the] face, he was lifeless. I checked for a pulse, I checked for a heartbeat, there was nothing,” Don Smith told ABC affiliate WNEP.
Nearly a year after the ordeal, Justin Smith was finally healthy enough to thank his doctors in person at a news conference on Monday. His doctors said Smith’s incredible tale of survival may affect how they treat other hypothermic patients in the future.
When Don Smith called paramedics after finding his son unconscious in the snow, they did not give up on the student. They started CPR with chest compressions.
Dr. Gerald Coleman, an emergency medicine physician at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, had Smith rushed to the hospital for care.
“You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead,” Coleman said on the Lehigh Valley Health Network website — referring to a phenomenon in which people who are kept at cold temperatures can be revived despite a lack of vital signs.
When Smith was brought into the emergency room, Coleman couldn’t even get an accurate body temperature reading because Smith was too cold. But the doctor did not give up. He transferred Smith via helicopter to a hospital where he could be hooked up to a machined called an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which warms the blood and oxygenates it then pumps it back into the body.
Dr. James Wu, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Leigh Valley Hospital at Cedar Crest, said it was a still a long shot that Smith could survive but after the machine was turned on, within 90 minutes his heart was beating on his own.
“With very low temperatures, it can preserve the brain and other organ functions,” Wu said at a news conference on Monday.
In spite of his nearly miraculous survival, Smith didn’t wake up immediately. Doctors were concerned he could have had serious brain damage. He also had severe frost bite and lost his toes and pinkies due to frostbite.
Approximately 30 days after he was found with no pulse, Smith woke up in a hospital room surrounded by family. He now is back at school at Penn State and aims to get a degree in psychology.
“It’s amazing,” Smith said at the news conference about his survival. “It’s something I never heard of and I can’t thank everyone enough.”