Dr. Larry Ebbert likes to say that he just happened to be changing planes in Minneapolis when he dropped dead in June.
That is why he lived to tell the tale.
"I guess I'm one of the luckier people on the planet," he said this week. "If I had not been where I was, when I was, I would have stayed dead."
Ebbert, a 66-year-old physician from Piedmont, S.D., is one of a growing number of people who have survived sudden cardiac arrest -- one of deadliest forms of heart attack -- virtually unscathed, thanks to what can truly be called a cool new technology.
For the past year, Twin Cities ambulances have been using chemical ice bags to cool down patients like Ebbert, as part of a pioneering effort to improve the patients' chances of full recovery. The results have been so encouraging that this week, the Minneapolis Heart Institute is hosting a national conference, called the "Miracle on Ice," to promote it.
"In a few years, this will be the state of the art and save a lot of lives," said Dr. Kevin Graham, a Minneapolis heart specialist and one of the conference organizers.
Today, some 300,000 Americans suffer sudden cardiac arrest each year, and the vast majority die before they reach the hospital. Doctors used to think that the brain could survive only four or five minutes without oxygen; but with cooling, they have discovered that some people can be revived after much longer, with little or no brain damage.
Since 2005, the American Heart Association has encouraged hospitals to use the cooling technique, known as therapeutic hypothermia, when patients like Ebbert reach the emergency room. But few have gone as far as the Twin Cities, where ambulance crews now routinely start the cooling process in the field.
"They're telling us that the faster you start cooling, the better the outcome," said Dr. Paul Satterlee, associate medical director of Allina Medical Transportation, which operates an ambulance service.
Doctors have found that, by cooling the body about six or seven degrees, they can slow or prevent the deadly chain of events that begins when the heart stops beating and cuts off oxygen to the brain.
Just last month, researchers at the American Heart Association national meeting reported that cooling can double the chances of surviving cardiac arrest. In one Virginia study of 181 patients who were successfully revived with CPR, only 19 percent lived long enough to leave the hospital with standard care. By comparison, 38 percent of those who were cooled survived, and the numbers were even higher when cooling began in the ambulance. Scientists in Stockholm found similar success when paramedics used a battery-powered device called the RhinoChill, which cools the body through plastic prongs inserted into the nose.
Last year, one medical journal, EMS Magazine, published a story about the cooling trend, with the headline: "Raising the Dead."
Ebbert, a retired cancer specialist, admits he had never even heard of the cooling technique when he arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport in June. A widower, he was returning home from Boston, waiting alone for a connecting flight to Rapid City.
Then he collapsed. An emergency-room nurse, who just happened to be nearby, began CPR ("one other part of the miracle," he said). Paramedics arrived and, among other things, placed icebags on his neck, under his arms and by his groin during the ambulance ride to Abbott Northwestern Hospital.
At Abbott, he was cooled down further with a high-tech device called an Arctic Sun.
He woke up two days later, after doctors slowly rewarmed his body and brought him out of a drug-induced coma.
"I think I died, yes," he said. "There wasn't any tunnel, there wasn't any light, but I was dead." If he'd been on a nonstop flight, he mused, he probably would have been home alone when it happened and never reawakened.
The doctors never found out what caused the cardiac arrest, he said, but they implanted a defibrillator to prevent it from happening again.
He walked out of the hospital after seven days, pausing to visit the ER team that took care of him. "These people had only seen me as a dead man, really," he said. "They looked over and you could just see their jaws drop."
Six weeks later, Ebbert was backpacking across a glacier in Alaska.
"For me, the worst possible outcome of this would have been that I survived but I had suffered significant brain damage," he said. "That would have been horrible. As it is, I think it came out of it pretty good."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384