Audrey Mash was so cold she couldn’t speak properly.
The 34-year-old Brit and her husband, Rohan Schoeman, were both numb and shivering from a bitter cold snap that swept over them while they were hiking in the Pyrenees mountains of Spain on Nov. 3.
Mash was feeling the worst of it. She was slurring her words. She wasn’t making sense. Then she suddenly went quiet and fell over in the snow, unconscious.
“I thought she was dead,” Schoeman later told local station TV3. “I was trying to feel for a pulse (but) my fingers were also numb. I couldn’t feel breath. I couldn’t feel a heartbeat.”
Doctors say Mash had developed a severe case of hypothermia on the hike, and she would not have survived if not for a new technique that kept her alive through a six-hour period in cardiac arrest. In a rare twist, the hypothermia helped keep her alive while her heart wasn’t beating, they said.
A rescue helicopter saved the couple from their ordeal after a weather delay, then rushed Mash to Vall D’Hebron hospital in Barcelona. She did not show any vital signs and her core body temperature was only 18 Celsius at the time — well below the normal 37 C.
But doctors didn’t give up. They hooked Mash up to a cutting-edge medical device called an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine (ECMO), which performs the same function as the heart and lungs. They used the device to give Mash’s organs a break while they slowly waited for her body temperature to come up.
They finally restarted her heart and brought her back to life later that night, after her body temperature had reached 30 C.
“Although hypothermia was about to kill Audrey, it also saved her because her body — and above all her brain — didn’t get any worse,” Dr. Eduardo Argudo said at a news conference Friday. He spoke alongside his very relieved and very alive patient, who appears to have made a full recovery.
“If she’d been in cardiac arrest for that long with a normal body temperature, we’d have been certifying her death,” Argudo said. “But we knew that the severe hypothermia meant that we had a shot at saving her thanks to the ECMO.”
Argudo said this is the longest recorded case in Spain of a person being resuscitated after a cardiac arrest, although it has happened in a few other European countries.
Doctors kept Mash under observation for neurological damage, but eventually gave her a clean bill of health.
“I recovered much faster than I, or I think the doctors, expected,” she said on Thursday. The British ex-pat, who lives in Barcelona, says she initially expected to stay in the hospital for a month. “I was out of intensive care after six days and out of hospital six days after that,” she said.
Argudo says Mash only had a few lingering mobility and numbness issues in her hands when she was discharged.
“We were very worried about any neurological damage,” he said. “There are practically no cases of people who have had their heart stop for so long and been revived.”
Mash says she has no memory of the six hours she spent on the brink of death.
“It’s like a miracle,” she said, “except that it’s all because of the doctors.”
Mash, who teaches English, says she won’t let her near-death experience stop her from hitting the trails again for another hike in the future.
“I don’t want this to take away this hobby from me,” she said.
—With files from Reuters