Last February, the father of 25-year-old Justin Smith found him frozen–and for all intents and purposes dead–in a snowbank in McAdoo, Pa.
Monday, he spoke out at a news conference in which he thanked the doctors who brought him back from the edge of death.
A blistering snowstorm had hit the Pennsylvania town and while the college student was walking home after drinks with friends, he fell. Nobody spotted him until the next morning, according to the Lehigh Valley Health Network. During that time, temperatures fell to 4 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.
His father described the terrifying moment when he saw his son lying in the snowbank, unresponsive.
“I put the car in park and I just ran to him and I started shaking his head. And I said, “No, you can’t leave me. You can’t leave me,” Don Smith told WTXF TV in Allentown, Pa. “He was blue [in] his face, he was lifeless. I checked for a pulse, I checked for a heartbeat, there was nothing,” Don Smith told ABC affiliate WNEP.
Justin was taken to Lehigh Valley Hospital Cedar Crest, and doctors there thought immediately that it was too late–he had no heartbeat, no pulse, no brain activity, and his body was frozen solid.
Until he was warmed up, they couldn’t pronounce him officially dead.
Dr. Gerald Coleman, an emergency medicine physician at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, said “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.”
Coleman said that when Smith was brought in, they couldn’t get a body temperature reading because the young man was too cold. Smith was then transferred via helicopter to another hospital where doctors hooked him up to a machine called an ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). This machine warms the blood, oxygenates it, and pumps it back into the body.
Dr. James Wu, a cardiothoracic surgeon, said Smith’s condition was still grave, but after the machine turned on, his heart was beating on his own within 90 minutes.
“With very low temperatures, it can preserve the brain and other organ functions,” Wu said at a news conference Monday.
It took 30 days for Justin to wake up, but to him, it felt like it happened instantaneously.
“Next thing, I know I’m waking up in Cedar Crest Hospital. Family was all around me. I was shocked,” Justin told the TV station. “I knew my pinkies were gone It could have been a lot worse. They went the extra effort and I can’t thank them enough. They’re amazing and I can’t thank them enough.”
“It’s amazing,” Smith said at the news conference. “It’s something I never heard of and I can’t thank everyone enough.”
Justin, who is working on his degree in psychology at Penn State and playing golf, is now living a completely normal life. He lost some of his toes and fingers due to frostbite, and had to undergo months of recovery.
But Wu says that other than that, the man who was essentially frozen has been warmed back to life.