This is unreal. Doctors in Pittsburgh will try to save the lives of 10 patients by placing them in a state that seems best described as a kind of suspended animation, by replacing all of their blood with a cold, saline solution that will slow down all cellular activity in the body. I wish I could have been in the IRB room when this one was approved.
It’s also interesting for metaphysical reasons related to defining life and death. I regularly teach a course called Life and Death; before getting to ethical issues related to death we spend the first few weeks of the class discussing just how difficult it is to define life and death. Our primary text is Fred Feldman’s Confrontations with the Reaper.
Feldman argues that you cannot define death as ceasing to be alive, because he regards going into a state of suspended animation as an instance of ceasing to be alive, but not dying. Students respond to these thought experiments by pointing out the far-fetched nature of what they’re being asked to imagine. Generally, whenever I discuss counter-examples to theories, I try to find examples that are closer to reality. I now have one for my life and death class.
My first thought was, surely this isn’t anything like suspended animation in the sense that Feldman has. Surely the body is still functioning, and all crucial parts are operating in a manner that is measurable. If so, it’s difficult to see how we’d call this a case of being neither dead or alive. But then I got to this passage:
The technique was first demonstrated in pigs in 2002 by Hasan Alam at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, and his colleagues. The animals were sedated and a massive haemorrhage induced, to mimic the effect of multiple gunshot wounds. Their blood was drained and replaced by either a cold potassium or saline solution, rapidly cooling the body to around 10 °C. After the injuries were treated, the animals were gradually warmed up as the solution was replaced with blood.
The pig’s heart usually started beating again by itself, although some pigs needed a jump-start. There was no effect on physical or cognitive function (Surgery, doi.org/dvhdzs).
“After we did those experiments, the definition of ‘dead’ changed,” says Rhee. “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.”
Two interesting things to note about this: First, it does look like they think people will be brought to a state where there are no measurable signs of life. Second, it raises a very tough moral dilemma for the doctors with this knowledge. He is declaring these people dead, but suspects that he could suspend them with this technology. My guess is that it’s outside the purview of his IRB approval, but you might think – what’s the harm in doing this research on someone who you are about to declare dead?