Man who nearly drowned is frozen back to life

Dan O'reilly was literally frozen back to life by doctors at St. Luke's.
By Deborah Wrigley
ABC13 Eyewitness News

(2/11/05 - HOUSTON) In a city famous for the Texas Medical Center, some new medical history has been made. A near drowning victim was brought back to life, not by CPR, but by a method never before used in this country by a doctor and a hospital that refused to give up.

It's the stuff of which science fiction is made...people frozen in time and brought back to life. But on December 21, a story began that puts fiction to shame.

Dan O'reilly and his two sons were in Ixtapa on the Mexican Riviera, swimming in the Pacific when a powerful wave caught him and plunged him underwater and into the sand.

"I heard more whistles and saw people running toward the beach," said Diane Pearson.

A man lay unconscious on the beach. Pearson saw it was her husband.

"It was frightening," she said. "Dan was blue and purple, like death looks."

He went without oxygen for 45 minutes before he was intubated. His wife arranged for him to be flown out by air ambulance. O'reilly traveled on life support and in a coma on a US-Mexico airlift jet to Houston. Twelve hours after the accident, O'reilly arrived at St. Luke's Hospital, where a respected critical care specialist was waiting.

"Basically, he was just breathing a little bit on the machine," said Dr. Joseph Varon. "If not, I would have declared him brain dead."

Notes from the patient medical file read 'Patient remains deadly ill' and 'Chance of recovery less than one percent.' With nothing to lose, Dr. Varon had to think outside the box and outside medical protocol.

"That's why we decided to go with a form of therapy which probably wouldn't be used by other clinicians," said Dr. Varon. "I froze him."

It's called hypothermic therapy. It's used on heart attack patients, but never for a drowning case until now. O'reilly was wrapped in a cooling blanket and his body temperature was lowered to 90 degrees, which is enough to freeze to death. But he was kept on life-support.

The treatment was allowing O'reilly's body to hibernate and to heal. On the third day his birthday -- he awoke.

"I've come back from the dead," he told us.

We asked him what that first thing was that he remembered when he woke up.

"I don't remember a thing until a long time later, Dr. Varon saying 'I didn't think you were going to make it'."

O'reilly surprised everyone. Despite the time without oxygen and surgery on a bruised spinal cord, he's expected to fully recover, thanks to the care he got at St. Luke's and medical science...more amazing than any science fiction.

"People now are freezing themselves after they die, hoping that someone will be able to revive them years later," said Dr. Varon.

The success of this case may affect how near drowning victims are medically treated in the future. St. Luke's hospital is informing its staff of the success and Dr. Varon is lecturing on it as well. As for Dan O'reilly, he and his family are back in their Canadian homeland, where he's getting physical therapy to recover the full use of his arms and legs.