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No heartbeat? No problem! Surgeons to try suspending patients between life and death

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It sounds like something straight out of a futuristic movie: A patient comes into an emergency room with a severe gunshot wound, having less than a 7 percent chance of survival. To buy time for an extensive surgery, doctors quickly replace his blood with a cold saline solution that forces hypothermia and stops most cellular activity. Now that his body is sufficiently cooled and there is no breathing or brain activity, the patient isn't alive, but he's also not dead. He's in suspended animation — and this technique will soon be tried for the first time at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh.

"We are suspending life, but we don't like to call it suspended animation because it sounds like science fiction," Samuel Tisherman, the surgeon leading the Pittsburgh trial, tells New Scientist. "So we call it emergency preservation and resuscitation." Currently, the technique should buy the doctors just a few hours, but that period of suspended animation could be enough to save a life.

One of the surgeons who helped develop this method, Peter Rhee from the University of Arizona in Tucson, says he strongly believes in the power of suspended animation after seeing pigs make a full recovery in trials. "After we did these experiments, the definition of 'dead' changed," he tells New Scientist. "Every day at work I declare people dead. They have no signs of life, no heartbeat, no brain activity. I sign a piece of paper knowing in my heart that they are not actually dead. I could, right then and there, suspend them. But I have to put them in a body bag. It's frustrating to know there's a solution." Read more at New Scientist.