5X5 Episode 21

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5X5 Episode 21
Family claims women miraculously brought back to life after rigor mortis
25th May 2008

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5X5 20 5X5 22
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Mike Lacelle
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Family claims women miraculously brought back to life after rigor mortis[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5x5 and the topic for this week is Val Thomas, who is a woman who had several heart attacks. She's 59-years-old. She was rushed to a West Virginia hospital and the story is pretty typical of someone who has a cardiac arrest in the field. She was resuscitated, although they had a hard time getting her back. She was worked on for a couple of hours. During - at one point they cooled her body and then warmed her back up. She was by reports on a ventilator the entire time, but she did not respond to the resuscitation, she appeared not to have any pulse or rhythm. The doctors and the family agreed that she wasn't going to make it and she was actually being kept on a ventilator so that she could be potentially an organ donor and then, "miraculously" she awoke and survived the experience.

J: She could not have been brain dead, obviously. What would you consider her to be during that time period?

S: The real story here is the absolutely horrific science reporting. This was probably not reported by a science journalist. The details are kind of all mixed up; they don't really hold together as a solid story and I looked in vain for even the slightest skeptical or critical reporting of this story on the internet. Every version of this story was essentially the same one. A lot of things don't make sense about this story as it was told. Now it's being promoted as a miraculously recovery, doctors are literally - baffled is the word that's being used. We like to joke around that 'doctors are baffled' or 'scientists are baffled' - those are the headlines. The family reported that rigor mortis had set in. None of these details make any sense whatsoever. They never did the kind of examination that would be necessary to declare somebody brain dead and there's no mention of that being done. I think, again, the reporting is very loose: they're throwing around terms like rigor mortis and brain death, etcetera, without really knowing what they mean.

B: The one thing that really gets to me is the way they're throwing around rigor mortis. I really don't think they know what this means. At one point in the story, it said "Val Thomas, 59, suffered two heart attacks, had no pulse and rigor mortis had set in." Apparently her son, Jim Thomas, said at one point her skin had already started to harden and her fingers curled. I think that's what he's taking as being rigor mortis. If she actually experienced rigor mortis and came back then that would be truly a miracle and that clearly did not happen. Rigor mortis does not start until two to four hours have passed unless you're in an extreme environment which I don't think she was in. And rigor mortis basically is - what's going on with rigor mortis is the muscle cells are contracting and it actually takes energy or the ATP for muscle cells to uncontract, so they kinda go into this default state and it takes a while to get there, about two to three hours and she clearly was not dead.

S: And that's after tissue death-right, that's after tissue-your muscle tissue has been dead for three hours.

J: Plus they had her on a ventilator. If they had her on a ventilator, that means that she was having circulation.

S: That's exactly right. You wouldn't put somebody and keep somebody on a ventilator if they literally had no heart pumping and no circulation at all; there would be no purpose for it.

E: Back to the point about the poor reporting on this, because, the story is a couple days old. I did go back to see if anybody did any follow-up reporting on this story. I could not find anything-

S: Uh-huh.

E:-I - you had to kind of dig into even just the comments on some of these sites that are carrying the article. I'm looking for a doctor's opinion or something substantial here that stabs at an explanation of what's been going on. The most interesting post I did see by someone is that they had a prediction: 1) The medical details of the report were not accurate and 2) The fine people at the SGU podcast would be covering this topic. So that was the most interesting comment I could find.

S: Very astute.

M: Doctor Kevin Eggleston is actually quoted as saying she had no neurological function. Does that mean the EEG was flat?

S: We're not given any of those details. We don't know if she had an EEG, we don't know if anybody did a neurological exam, if there was even a neurological consult called. It could have just meant she was just unresponsive. That is not a meaningful statement. We're not given the details necessary to put it into any kind of context. What is happening here - one possibility about the rigor mortis is that she was cooled at one point and cooling does cause the muscles to contract and shrink a little bit and that could have been misinterpreted by the family as rigor mortis and then passed onto the absolutely credulous journalists who didn't do their job and try to figure out what was actually going on here. Plus - I'm sure that her perfusion was very very poor. She probably had a very faint heart rhythm and her pulse was too soft to pick up. You can miss the pulse of somebody if it's very very faint. These kinds of things happen all the time. Lots of people get resuscitated in the hospital. They may be prematurely declared dead or they may have a pulse that was not picked up on and then they can surprisingly come out of it because they were being ventilated, they were breathing or they - their heart was beating, they were getting some circulation. So this not unusual. What's unusual is just the extent to which the science reporting has degenerated and these stories are now popping up with regularity as medical miracles baffling doctors and it's all nonsense.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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