How Anna Bågenholm Tricked Death
You are not dead until you are warm and dead. This cocky saying might be just what saved Anna Bagenholm in mid-1999. The spirit of survival is within each and every one of us. This was proven by Bagenholm when she set a record of being the coldest person to have ever survived. Her body reached an incredibly low temperature of 13.70 C and she lived to tell her story which is simply fascinating and motivating.
Bågenholm was skiing in the mountains outside of the town Narvik (pictured) when she fell into a frozen stream. (via wikipedia.org) Photo by Tom Corser www.tomcorser.com. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales (UK) Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en_GB
It was on the evening of 20th May 1999 when Anna Bagenholm and two of her colleagues set out to ski in the mountains outside Narvik, Norway. At the time, the 29-year-old was studying to be an orthopedic surgeon. An expert skier, Bagenholm and her colleagues Marie Falkenberg and Torvind Naesheim took a steep mountainside route. She had taken this route several times before. On the way down, she lost control of her skis and fell headfast on an 8-inch layer of ice. Below the ice was a frozen stream.
When Bagenholm fell, a hole opened in the ice and she was dragged under the ice. When her friends found her, only her feet and skis were above the ice. They grabbed her skis and tried to pull her out but she was tightly held by rocks and ice below. They called for help but the situation wasn’t promising as Bagenholm’s head and torso was slowly freezing under the frigid ice. Luckily, while under the water, she found a pocket of air and struggled to stay conscious while help arrived.
The human body is tuned to survive at an optimal 37.5℃. When the temperature goes to 35℃, hypothermia sets in. Below 30℃, most victims lose consciousness. Any temperature below 25℃ means that the victim will most certainly have a cardiac arrest. Once cardiac arrest takes place, the body starts to enter the twilight zone. This is when the dying procedure in the body starts off. Death will follow after several minutes if no medical intervention is made.
After staying under the freezing water for 40 minutes, Bagenholm stopped moving and her body became limp. Soon after, her heart stopped due to circulatory arrest. Finally, rescuers from the bottom of the mountain arrived with a pointed gardening shovel. They were able to dig the tough ice and pull Bagenholm out of the cold water at 19:40. She had been under freezing water for 80 minutes.
Her pupils were dilated and there was no pulse. Immediately, her friends Falkenberg and Naesheim started giving her CPR despite knowing well that she was clinically dead. A diverted helicopter arrived soon after and she was taken to Tromso University Hospital where it arrived at 21:10 local time. According to Dr. Mads Gibert, an anesthesiologist at the hospital, her pupils was completely dilated, was flaxen, ash white, wet and on toughing her, she felt and appear to be dead without a doubt. Hypothermia is not uncommon in Norway and Gilbert knew how to treat Bagenholm.
The ECG (electrocardiogram) machine which she was connected to on the helicopter had shown a consistent flat line and in the hospital, it was no different. However, Gilbert hoped that Bagenholm had been so cold that her brain would have slowed down before she died. Under normal body temperature, our bodies cannot go beyond 20 minutes without oxygen before irreversible brain damage occurs. When the temperatures are low, the brain slows down and this means it needs lesser oxygen.
Still dead, Bagenholm was attached to a heart-lung machine where her blood was pumped out to warm it. Slowly, the temperature of her body gradually rose from the 13.7℃. At 1600 hours CET the following day, almost 24 hours after Bagenholm had fallen under the water, her heart restarted. It then started pumping blood on its own.
The gradual healing process started. It wasn’t after 12 days that Bagenholm opened her eyes. However, it took her more than a year to move because some nerves had been damaged during her ordeal.
She is now fully recovered and works as a senior radiology consultant at Tromso University Hospital where her life was saved.
“Over the last 28 years, 34 victims of accidental hypothermia with cardiac arrest and who were re-warmed on cardiopulmonary bypass and only 30% survived”, Gilbert says. According to him, the big question to ask when dealing with ‘Bagenholm situation’ is whether you had cooled before you got the cardiac arrest or you had a cardiac arrest before getting cooled.
Her case contribution to the medical world
Bagenholm’s case made it to record books and in research journals such as The Lancet. Her case changed the way doctors approach hypothermia deaths. In the Lancet study, the conclusion was that a victim of serious accidental hypothermia, after nine hours of successful resuscitation and astonishing stabilization led to an impressive physical and mental recovery. It was decided that for this reason the possible outcome should be advocated and remembered for all such victims.
In University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre Hospital, doctors are using induced hypothermia in critical patients. This is done to prolong the window in which they can stop bleeding in patients in order to save lives.
In 2014, while talking to NPR, physiologist Kevin Fond said, “We think of death as being a moment in time but actually, it is a process”.
“Never give up, never give up, never give up – Because there’s always hope” these are the three cardinal rules of one of Anna’s colleagues Torvind Naesheim.
What enables people to survive great hardship? Share your thoughts below!