Suspended Animation In Surgery

Stuck Pig.

Mike Duggan, a veterinary surgeon, holds his gloved hands over an 8-inch incision in the belly of pig 78-6, a 120-pound, pink Yorkshire. He’s waiting for a green light from Hasan Alam, a trauma surgeon at Massachu­setts General Hospital.

“Make the injury,” Alam says. Duggan nods and slips his hands into the gash, fingers probing through inches of fat and the rosy membranes holding the organs in place. He pushes aside the intestines, ovaries, and bladder, and with a quick scalpel stroke slices open the iliac artery. It’s 10:30 am. Pig 78-6 loses a quarter of her blood within moments. Heart rate and blood pressure plummet. Don’t worry – Alam and Duggan are going to save her.

Alam goes to work on the chest, removing part of a rib to reveal the heart, a throbbing, shiny pink ball the size of a fist. He cuts open the aorta – an even more lethal injury – and blood sprays all over our scrubs. The EKG flatlines. The surgeons drain the remaining blood and connect tubes to the aorta and other vessels, filling the circulatory system with chilled organ-preservation fluid – a nearly frozen daiquiri of salts, sugars, and free-radical scavengers.

Her temperature is 50 degrees Fahrenheit; brain activity has ceased. Alam checks the wall clock and asks a nurse to mark the time: 11:25 am.

But 78-6 is, in fact, only mostly dead – the common term for her state is, believe it or not, suspended animation. Long the domain of transhumanist nut-jobs, cryogenic suspension may be just two years away from clinical trials on humans (presuming someone can solve the sticky ethical problems). Trauma surgeons can’t wait – saving people with serious wounds, like gunshots, is always a race against the effects of blood loss. When blood flow drops, toxins accumulate; just five minutes of low oxygen levels causes brain death.

Suspended animation would give surgeons hours, as opposed to minutes, to perform surgery on life-threatening wounds.

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