January 1st, 2010
12:13 PM ET

Advances in critical care saving more lives

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

I’m joining my colleagues in looking back at the biggest stories we covered in 2009. In the book “Cheating Death” and CNN’s “Another Day: Cheating Death,” I helped Dr. Sanjay Gupta explore the world of emergency medicine and critical care, which in some ways are changing dramatically – so dramatically, it’s hard to comprehend.

One example: This summer I found myself at the home of Chris Brooks, a 23-year-old fresh from college, who survived an unexplained cardiac arrest a few months earlier. “I was dead,” he told us. So matter-of-fact. But amazing, even to medical professionals. Chris had no heartbeat for more than 20 minutes, maybe 25, before paramedics got it going. The medical literature teaches that someone like Chris should be dead, or have catastrophic brain damage. But we hung around the house, grabbed a couple of beers, went bowling, talked about his job search… as if his dying never happened.

The treatment of cardiac arrest is being transformed. Nationally, of people who suffer cardiac arrest outside a hospital, only 2 or 3 percent survive without major brain damage. But not everywhere. In Seattle, about 40 percent of victims survive. Arizona raised the statewide survival rate from 3 percent to 20 percent in just four years. Health professionals started saving people not with amazing high-tech breakthroughs but with simple things, including better coordination between paramedics and hospitals, better CPR techniques and cooling patients’ body temperature.

Even as they make a sevenfold difference in survival rates, you won’t see ads for these things plastered all over television as you would for a new medicine. Nothing against pharmaceuticals, but you can see that better medical care doesn’t always have to be complicated, or cost more. It’s often said, if you want to get fit, do what athletes do. If you want to save money, do what rich people do. If you want to save cardiac arrest patients, do what they do in Seattle or Phoenix.

Or Philadelphia, where Chris Brooks lives. Ten years ago, he would have been dead. But here he is, talking about the future. He wants to start a business someday. He beat the odds not through miracles but through smart, well-organized medical care. What seemed impossible, wasn’t.

That’s one lesson I’ll remember in 2010 and beyond.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.