Thought Frozen to Death, Pennsylvania Man Makes Miraculous Recovery
Lehigh Valley Health Network doctors help a young man defy all odds in what is being considered a “medical miracle”
Today, Justin Smith, a McAdoo, Pa., man who escaped near-certain death from the bitter cold last winter, returned to Lehigh Valley Hospital’s Hazleton and Cedar Crest campuses to thank caregivers for saving his life. Thanks to the quick actions and groundbreaking medical care of the Lehigh Valley Health Network team, Justin defied all odds and is alive today to tell his story.
Justin Smith looked frozen solid the morning of Feb. 21, 2015, when his father found him lying unconscious in a foot of snow. Justin had been there overnight as the temps plunged to a frigid 4 below zero. Justin’s body lay there; he had no pulse and was not breathing. Don Smith believed his only son, age 25, was dead.
“I held him and sobbed, ‘Justin, don’t leave me,’” Don Smith says.
Paramedics rushed to the scene and called Lehigh Valley Hospital–Hazleton for guidance from Gerald Coleman, DO, emergency medicine. The paramedic expected Coleman to tell him that resuscitation efforts would be futile. Instead, Coleman ordered the first responders to begin CPR and rush Justin to the hospital.
Once in the emergency room, Coleman was unable to read Justin’s body temperature because he was too cold. For the next several hours, 15 staffers took turns doing CPR, slowly rewarming his body and providing exhaustive lifesaving measures. Even after all of this, Justin’s body was still far too cold. The medical team decided Justin’s best chance to live would be to transport him to their sister hospital, Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest, where James Wu, MD, had a unique treatment plan.
Wu, a cardiothoracic surgeon, recommended connecting Justin to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to warm and oxygenate his blood. Wu knew that the ECMO machine, typically used to save patients whose lungs and heart are damaged by the flu or a heart attack, was Justin’s best and last chance for survival. After just 90 minutes on the ECMO machine, Justin’s body temperature was warming, and his heart began beating on its own.
Once his vitals were stable and his body was heated to an acceptable level, Justin required the immediate attention of Dr. John Castaldo, a neurologist. Castaldo was worried about Justin’s extended time without oxygen and, upon further examination, found no signs of brain activity. Justin was in a coma. Remaining vigilant, Castaldo and his team continued routine neurologic examinations, eventually noting that tests and scans showed that Justin’s brain began to regain function.
After numerous tests and countless hours of monitoring, Justin had made progress. “His eyes followed me; they tracked my face,” recalls Castaldo. “We were jubilant. We believed there was a miracle unfolding in front of us.”
Slowly, Justin’s happy-go-lucky personality began to reemerge, awareness returned, and his memory began to piece together. Although Justin showed tremendous progress, he still required continuous physical care, as neither his kidneys nor his lungs worked. He also had to relearn how to use hands and walk because two of his fingers and all of his toes were amputated due to gangrene.
After months of recovery, Justin’s life, miraculously, has returned to normal—he’s playing golf, rooting for the Phillies and planning to return to college to finish his degree in psychology.
“I consider myself a miracle,” Justin says, grateful for the dedicated service of Lehigh Valley Health Network doctors and staff and their innovative medical care and unwavering commitment to saving his life.