Hearts on Ice

I’ve written before that I have had a bout with Endocarditis. That’s when I was introduced to the cooling blanket. Trust me, you don’t wanna meet the cooling blanket.

I had been feeling run down for several days but just couldn’t put my finger on it. It had been really busy lately and I figured I was just tired. It had been go, go go! for several days and my thinking was that my gas tank was just empty. But a quick glance in a mirror scared me – I was a lot bluer that I normally I. And I mean a lot bluer – my entire face seemed to be grey.

Down at the hospital they my temperature was still normal, so they did all the usual blood work. The tests came back funny – something was going on, but they weren’t sure what. So I’d be staying for a little while. It took them almost two days to figure things out, and only after they called in the state’s top Infective Disease doctor. I’ve never been easy to figure out – even he admitted I was “quite a challenge.” But he figured out that I had Endocarditis. And the next night, I spiked a fever.

Fevers (not just for me, but in general) seem to hit at night, I do not know why. The first and best clue that I am getting a fever is I suddenly get cold, and that is what happened this time. They ran some blood work and took my temperature. The temp must have really been something – it seemed everyone took a half step backward when they saw the readout. That’s when the doctor said “Let’s get this young man a cooling blanket.” A moment later the nurse came in with a large blanket and they kicked me out of bed long enough to set it up. It looked liked your standard electric blanket – but they did hook it into a fairly large box they placed at the foot of my bed.

Turned out that a cooling blanket has little tubes in it, and these tubes connect to a circulating pump (the box) that circulates very cold water through it. After they got the cooling blanket going, they turned the air conditioner on wide open and gave me orders not to get out of bed. Ok, I thought, this thing is going to chill me down a little. Just got to tough it out.

The only – and I do mean only – reason they call it a blanket is to fool the patient! It just kept getting colder and colder, and the air conditioner wasn’t helping. I didn’t sleep very much that night, obviously!

Cold has been used medically for quite some time, since lowering the body temperature also slows body functions. Every few years we hear a news story about someone who fell into a frozen lake and was in the cold water for a long time. When they come out it seems there can be no way that they survived. The water’s too cold, they’ve been in there too long, and/or they’ve been submerged. But somehow they are revived! The cold slows down their body systems enough that they can survive.

Here is a link to the April 20, 1953 issue of Life Magazine with an article on what seems to be an early cooling blanket. Young Maryann Ferrante had a Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD) present since birth, but doctors of the time had no good repair options. The Heart/Lung Bypass Machine was a recent invention and not very reliable. The only other option was to cut into the heart where the surgeon thought it might be, find it, and repair it – all the while with blood gushing out of the wound and blocking any view of the VSD. Nothing good could come from that.

So surgeons at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia came up with another plan. They would use a cooling blanket to chill Maryann down to 76 degrees before the operation. The lower temperature would cause her body to slow down enough to clamp the blood vessels and open up the heart. They would still have to work quickly, but the operative field would be clear enough to find the hole and do the repair. The operation was a success, as the article mentions her follow-up visit to the hospital.

Maryann was put to sleep before she went under the cooling blanket. If I had know what was coming, I would have told my doctors to knock me out, too!


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