Ambulances get new life-saving technology

HOUSTON Hypothermia is what it's called and it's gotten a lot of attention with the ongoing recovery of football player Kevin Everett who had a spinal cord injury last year. Now, Houston's EMS is taking it to another level -- using it on heart attack patients in coordination with emergency room doctors. It's setting the trend for other cities to follow.

At the start of every shift now Houston paramedics stock up from the station refrigerators. They load up ice packs and chilled IV bags that in the right hands, and on the right patients, can help move a miracle along. It's a simple therapy with a long name -- post-resuscitation hypothermia.

Houston EMS Director Dr. David Persse explained, "What we do, from a medical standpoint, is essentially cool the brain of someone whose heart has stopped beating for a while."

In heart attacks the brain is deprived of oxygen, and that's what this chill therapy is focused on. While in an ambulance on the way to the emergency room, the body temperature is lowered with ice packs and, you could say, ice water in the veins.

"We believe by cooling the brain and slowing down the metabolism of the brain we can minimize the damage that could occur during that period," said Dr. Persse.

Houston is the largest US city to include the therapy aboard its ambulances. Until recently the limiting factor was enough hospitals that have cooling blankets and doctors who specialize in the treatment. The medical center has an abundance -- St. Luke's, Methodist and Memorial Hermann hospitals. Now Clear Lake Regional, plus Kingwood and West Houston medical centers have signed up. At St. Luke's, for example, the recovery rate for hypothermia patients is said to be as high as 70%.

Dr. John Stroh with St. Luke's Hospital said, "We do see a significant amount of these people and it helps a lot when we know they're coming."

It's not for every heart attack patient, and it cannot be used on trauma victims with internal bleeding, but it has made for some amazing recoveries.

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