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'Ice-cold' and with no heartbeat, 64-year-old lives to tell about it

Janice Goodger's body temperature had fallen to 60 degrees -- as cold as Dr. Chris Delp has ever seen -- and so cold that it appeared as if she couldn't possibly survive.

Instead, the 64-year-old Duluth woman will walk back into St. Luke's hospital for a simple checkup today, just days after what Delp, an emergency room physician at the hospital, called an "amazing" medical journey to the brink of death and back.

"I'm not aware of anyone at this age to have survived [being so cold] and to have done this well," he said.

And Goodger, who returned to her apartment just days after her heart stopped beating for at least an hour as her body temperature fell, seems to have suffered no ill effects.

"I don't feel any different, except I can't yell anymore," Goodger said.

Goodger, who has had rheumatoid arthritis for the past 24 years, was caring for her daughter's dog on Anderson Road in Duluth on the afternoon of Dec. 27. At about 5 p.m., as Goodger walked through her daughter's backyard, she slipped on a slick patch of snow and landed hard.

Goodger's stiff, swollen joints made it impossible for her to get up off the ground, leaving her few options. She ended up scooting along the ground toward where her car was waiting, only to find that she couldn't get in the vehicle, either. She was stuck.

She wrapped a long scarf around her legs, pulled her long red coat snugly around her body, reclined in the snowbank, and waited as darkness fell. As Goodger lay in the slushy snow, she grew colder and wetter, she offered one last thought -- "Well, God, it's up to you." Some time later, she slipped into unconsciousness.

Goodger's daughter found her about 9 p.m., after the family returned from a trip to St. Cloud. Goodger was alive, but her heart was just barely beating. The Duluth temperature at the time was 21 degrees with a wind chill in the upper single digits, said Tom Lonka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth.

"When a heart gets that cold, the electrical activity is so fragile, that anything you do will just stop it," Delp said.

It's called hypothermia-induced cardiac arrest, and it's fairly uncommon, said Dave Johnson, operations manager for Gold Cross Ambulance of Duluth and Superior. Simply moving a severely hypothermic person can cause cardiac arrest, he said.

Delp praised Gold Cross paramedics and the Duluth Fire Department crews that arrived at the scene for recognizing that. The heart muscle must be warmed before there's even a chance of getting it beating again, Delp said. Shocking a chilled heart, or dosing a patient with cardiac drugs, won't make a difference.

Once Goodger was in the St. Luke's emergency room, doctors worked to bring her cold body back to life.

"She was ice cold," Delp said. "She felt, literally, like a corpse."

As doctors set up heated IV drips and a machine to pump heated air into Goodger's body, her blood began flowing to her extremities again.

Extremely cold temperatures can protect some body functions -- particularly brain activity, Delp said -- but are damaging to others. After about 20 minutes in the emergency room, Goodger was transferred to the operating room, where cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mary Boylan used a special machine to drain Goodger's blood out of her chilled body, warm it and pump it back in.

Emergency responders kept up CPR on Goodger's body for at least an hour before she was warm enough to make an attempt to start her heart, Delp said. Surgeons shocked the muscle, and it began beating normally.

From there, Goodger's recovery was quick and, apparently, complete.

The first thing Goodger can remember after the ordeal is her daughter whispering in her ear on the morning of Dec. 28.

"She said, 'You can go and see your sister in heaven, or you can stay and watch your grandchildren grow up,' " Goodger said.

Soon enough, Goodger was sitting up in her hospital bed and licking an orange Popsicle to soothe her throat.

"I went and visited her the next day, and they had already taken her off the breathing machine," Delp said. "I did not expect her to be able to talk to me; my jaw hit the floor when she smiled at me."

Delp said that "everything came together perfectly" to help Goodger make her recovery -- from the paramedics and firefighters who treated her just right, to the constant CPR she received, to the care from Boylan to help warm her heart.