Surviving under ice

Do you think that a human being has any chance to survive in ice-cold water? Chances for that are almost zero, if this person is not a specially trained athlete, a yogi, or an ice diver. Meanwhile, such cases are well known in the history of medicine, although they are still considered a sensation. Many of such stories occurred to children.

In early 1974, five-year-old Veggard Slettemuen of the Norwegian town of Lillestrom, was playing on the ice of a frozen river. The ice cracked, and the boy fell into the water. His body was recovered only in 40 minutes. Doctors started taking life-saving efforts, although no one was hoping that it was possible to bring the child back to life. However, twenty minutes after the start of the procedures, the boy suddenly began to breathe.

For two days, the boy was unconscious, but then woke up and asked where his glasses were. Despite the nearly hour-long clinical death, doctors found no brain disorders.

This episode of clinical death caused vivid discussions in medical press, as it was previously believed that "reviving" a drowned human being could be possible only if he or she spent no more than 6-12 minutes under the water. In almost all cases, the brain of such an individual would suffer irreversible damage.

In March 1975, a similar clinical death case took place again. This time, the story was about 18-year-old American citizen Brian Cunningham, who fell through ice while driving. The young man spent 38 minutes under the water, and doctors were able to revive him.

Investigating the episode of clinical death, Dr. Martin Nemiro of the University of Michigan found that the drowned man survived owing to two factors: the diving reflex and moderately cold water (below 21 degrees Celsius).

When immersed into water, a human being holds their breath reflexively, and the heart activity slows down. The blood remains oxygenated and ceases to flow to the chilled tissues, muscles and organs that are not vital. At  the same time, it still flows to the brain and the heart. Cells can thus live under such conditions for tens of minutes. 

It is the diving reflex that makes it possible for marine mammals, such as seals, for example, to stay alive under the water for a long time. 

Nemiro's discovery made it possible to save the life of four-year-old Jimmy Tontlewicz, who fell through ice in February 1984, while sledding on a frozen lake in Michigan. His body was recovered only half an hour later. The boy was not breathing, but the heart was beating weakly. He was brought back to life at the Chicago Children's Hospital, although Jimmy had to spend three months there. After clinical death, he had to relearn how to walk, eat and talk. When five, he went to kindergarten and began attending swimming classes. 

Three-year-old Misty Dawn Densmore fell into the water from a fishing vessel in the Gulf of Alaska, near the coast of Kodiak Island. The girl remained in the water for 30 minutes. However, after resuscitation, the girl came to her senses. Her mother, Andy Densmore, said that the girl opened her mouth and breathed in a large portion of air before she drowned. When the little girl woke up, the first thing she asked was what happened and where her mother was.

Nevertheless, modern doctors believe that the "diving reflex" version was not viable, as the processes that take place in the human body during drowning are significantly different from those that occur during conscious breath-holding diving.

Most likely, people can recover from drowning due to the sudden freezing of the body and decelerating metabolism. Researchers Cohn and Barker suggested to describe this phenomenon with the term "syndrome of acute sub-immersion hypothermia." Children, they said, have a smaller body size, so the body of a child  cools faster.

However, this happens not only to children. On March 21, 1996, 32-year-old Ward Krenz of Clear Lake (Iowa) decided to ride a snowmobile with his friends on a frozen lake. A snowstorm started, Krenz strayed off the road and fell into an ice-hole. He was wearing a shockproof helmet, in which there was a bit of air left. Rescuers recovered him from the icy water only in 1 hour 10 minutes.

The man had no heart beat, he was not breathing, his body temperature dropped to 24 degrees ... Krenz spent half an hour in a state of clinical death, and remained unconscious for three days afterwards. He woke up on the fourth day, and 13 days later, he was discharged from hospital. Due to a very sudden drop in body temperature, metabolism in the man's body stopped completely. In this state, his brain did not need oxygen, it was turned off for a while.

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov