Houston doctor performing miracles

Published: February 26, 2007 | 5625th good news item since 2003

The Texas Medical Center is no stranger to medical miracles. Even so, a therapy who’s being used to bring patients from the brink of brain death to full recovery is getting a lot of attention.

Two years ago, we brought you the exclusive story of a man who was frozen back to life and the Houston doctor who gambled on the unusual therapy. Since then, he’s become a leading authority on the treatment called hypothermic treatment and he’s done it again.

Christmas Eve at Texas Children’s Hospital, Leslie Williams was working, walking down a hospital corridor when she collapsed. She was resuscitated three times. Her heart was brought back, but her brain went without oxygen it’s estimated for 30 minutes.

Williams needed a miracle. She got one at neighboring St. Luke’s Episcopal and with a doctor who specializes in the extraordinary.

“Even though her heart was beating, basically I saw no brain activity. This was a very sick lady,” said said Dr. Joseph Varon with St. Luke’s

So Dr. Varon ordered Williams’ body be cooled down to 93 degrees. As warm as that sounds, it’s cold enough to cause death. But done properly, it puts the body in hibernation and protects the brain. The next day, on Christmas, she was rewarmed. She awoke.

Williams was out of the hospital by New Year’s Eve. She now has a pacemaker and a heart full of gratitude.

“I have a beautiful family with whom I’ve been blessed and I’ll be able to share this new thing that happened to me and I’m sure it can be repeated,” she said.

History has repeated itself. Two years ago, also on Christmas Eve, a man who nearly drowned vacationing in Mexico was flown to St. Luke’s. Dan O’Reilly, too, was all but brain dead. Dr. Varon put him in a hypothermic coma. O’Reilly made a full recovery.

The case made international news and put Dr. Varon in the forefront of hypothermia research, enough that he says he was even asked by the Vatican if the therapy could save a then-dying Pope John Paul II. It was too late for the pontiff, but the doctor wants to see hypothermic treatment become a lot more common.

With a small catheter device, it’s being tested by Quickcool Technologies of Sweden. The small balloons are inserted through the nose, into the sinus, cooling only the brain.

“That means somebody who had a cardiac arrest at their home, the moment they’re taking them on an ambulance, they’re starting to cool this patient off,” said Dr. Varon. “The patient has the best possible chance of neurological survival.”

If the FDA approves the device, it could help soldiers injured in the field. Closer to home, perhaps stroke victims. It’s the future of a therapy that’s being perfected, patient by patient, by each life saved.

“It’s not science fiction,” said Dr. Varon. “It’s real medicine and we practice it every day.”

Published in Miracles, Science & Technology
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