ALIVE AGAIN AFTER 101 MINUTES
This photo shouldn’t really exist. Toddler Gardell Martin was feared drowned – but then he was brought back to life
Early March: as usual, two-year-old Gardell Martin is playing with his siblings next to the stream bordering the family’s property in Pennsylvania. But meltwater has turned the babbling brook into a raging torrent. Gardell accidentally slips into the ice-cold water and is quickly swept away – out of sight and out of reach of his brothers and sisters. When a neighbour finds the boy 200 metres downstream, 35 minutes have passed: he’s freezing, doesn’t have a pulse and isn’t breathing. A paramedic arrives and tries to resuscitate him, but there’s little hope. After more than 30 minutes in the water, the chance that the toddler is still alive is next to zero.
When Gardell finally arrives at the paediatric wing of the Geisinger Medical Centre in Danville, USA, Dr Frank Maffei declares him to have been clinically dead for an hour. The toddler is in cardiac arrest: his brain still shows signs of life, but the other organs are no longer being supplied with oxygen. Normally, a person can survive in this state for just five minutes. Gardell has already hovered in this grey area between life and death for more than an hour. But Dr Maffei didn’t give up hope: although all of the monitors – and perceived medical wisdom – indicated that a resuscitation attempt was futile, he persevered. “I never felt hopeless,” says Dr Maffei. “I thought, ‘we’ve still got a shot to save him.’” After 100 minutes, Gardell was defying logic and the laws of medical science.
Suddenly, there’s a beep. A heartbeat! A sign of life! “I can feel a pulse in his femoral artery!” says Dr Maffei. The first miracle – albeit only a tantalising flicker. Gardell’s heart is pumping oxygen through his small, pale body. But the doctors aren’t celebrating just yet. “It’s far too early to tell the parents,” the doctor continues. The brain, heart and kidneys are extremely sensitive to long interruptions to their oxygen supply. It’s likely that Gardell will have severe mental and physical disabilities. That said, who knows what will happen next: the boy passed beyond the limits of medical knowledge a long time ago.
Surprisingly, the extreme coldness of the water actually helped. “Hypothermia imparts a degree of protection from the detrimental effects of low blood flow and low oxygen,” explains Dr Maffei. It set off the brain’s survival mechanism: the low temperature forces the metabolism to shut down, meaning the brain can survive on just 30% of its normal oxygen supply. That’s how he survived for 35 minutes. The CPR and warming of the body then allowed the circulation to be maintained until the doctors felt a heartbeat and Gardell opened his eyes. “In my 23 years I have not seen an hour and 41 minutes come back to this degree of neurological recovery,” says Dr Maffei. Against all the odds, Gardell is now a perfectly healthy kid.