It’s a bitter February morning in Tresckow, Pennsylvania, and Don Smith is facing his worst nightmare. After searching for his missing son Justin, he discovers the 26-year-old blue and unconscious on the sidewalk, seemingly frozen to death in the terrible cold. Desperate, Don therefore calls the emergency services – but can they actually help? Well, as it turns out, one doctor has a last-ditch – but pretty insane – idea that could just save the young man’s life.
Less than 12 hours before he was found on the ground, Justin had been in the local social hall, drinking beer with his friends. When he waved goodbye to his loved ones and headed out into the freezing night, though, nobody could have guessed what was to happen. And for Justin and his family, things would never be the same again after that evening.
Before Justin knew it, the arctic temperatures had him in their deathly grasp. In fact, by the time that his father found him the next morning, he had frozen solid. In that state, Justin’s eyes appeared to be staring lifelessly at the sky; more disturbingly still, he did not seem to have a pulse.
So, while praying for a miracle, Don clutched his son’s body as he waited for the emergency services to arrive. Then, when it was determined that nothing could be done for the young man, the coroner was called. But because Justin was so cold, he could not actually be declared legally dead. And as he began to warm up, something incredible happened: a medical marvel that stunned the world.
Prior to that fateful night, Justin had been a typical 26-year-old living in a small Pennsylvanian town. By his own admission, he liked a drink or two; he wasn’t averse to taking risks, either. Yet Justin did have responsibilities, as he was also studying for a psychology degree at Pennsylvania State University. In his spare time, meanwhile, he enjoyed playing golf and cheering on the Philadelphia Phillies.
And, at first, the evening of February 20, 2015, began much like many others. Back then, Justin and his friends had gathered at the social hall of the Tresckow Volunteer Fire Company to while the night away. Yet there was something distinctive about this particular date that cast a somber mood over the group.
Ten years previously, you see, a terrible accident had torn Justin’s life apart. As a teenager, he had been involved in a car accident that had killed his best friend. And even though he had survived the crash, the young man certainly hadn’t forgotten what had happened. In fact, that very night, he was marking the anniversary of the tragedy in his own way.
Initially, Justin had planned to catch a ride back from the social hall with a friend; as the evening progressed, however, he found himself keen to leave earlier than originally anticipated. Justin didn’t want to stick around until the driver was ready to depart, either. So, as he’d had too many beers to safely take the wheel of his own car, he decided that he would simply walk the two miles home.
Apparently, the route was one that Justin had tackled many times before; on this night, though, he was ill-equipped for the freezing conditions, being dressed only in sneakers, a hoodie and jeans. Nevertheless, the 26-year-old began the trek home – on a night that he would later discover had been the coldest of that year.
So, at around 9:30 p.m., Justin left his friends at the bar. Then, after he had been walking for just a mile, disaster struck. Although exactly what happened is unclear, doctors believe that Justin slipped on a snowbank and knocked his head. And rendered unconscious as a result, the young man was powerless to do anything as his body succumbed to the cold.
For the rest of the night, Justin lay on the snowbank, his body freezing as the temperature dipped below zero. Meanwhile, his girlfriend at the time grew ever more concerned. Unsure of what had happened, she spent the night trying to telephone Justin’s dad, Don. And finally, the following morning, the anxious father’s search began.
Don discovered Justin lying on his back in the snowbank at around 7:30 a.m. By that time, he had turned blue, while his feet and arms appeared black. And even though Justin’s eyes were open, there did not seem to be any sign of life within them. Even so, Don searched desperately for a pulse on his son’s frozen body, which lay a mile from their home.
“I held him and sobbed, ‘Justin, don’t leave me,’” Don later told the Lehigh Valley Health Network. “Then I called his mother and told her, ‘Justin’s dead.’” And when members of the emergency services arrived on the scene, they reached the same conclusion, as they couldn’t find any trace of a pulse on Justin, either.
Certain that Justin had passed away, the paramedics therefore placed a sheet over his body and contacted the appropriate authorities. And according to Dr. Gerald Coleman from Lehigh Valley Hospital in nearby Hazleton, the situation looked bleak. “The coroner was on scene,” a 2016 WPMT report quoted Coleman as saying. “The state police were on scene. They were doing essentially a death investigation.”
But the story was not over just yet. Seeking guidance on the situation, one of the paramedics at Justin’s side reached out to Coleman over the telephone. And, luckily, the experienced doctor knew that when it came to surviving extreme temperatures, things aren’t always what they seem. In fact, he believed that it may be possible to revive the young man – even though it seemed unlikely.
Nevertheless, in places such as Pennsylvania where winter temperatures can drop below zero, the risks associated with cold weather are very real. And when conditions are at their worst, locals could even experience hypothermia. Indeed, it can take less than seven minutes of exposure for an underdressed individual to succumb to the condition.
According to experts, hypothermia occurs when the temperature of the human body plummets below 95 °F. Typically, this happens because the sufferer has exposed themselves to the extreme cold; occasionally, though, hypothermia can also set in after alcohol has been consumed, as this often affects the body’s ability to regulate warmth. And as you may expect, the consequences aren’t pleasant.
When hypothermia kicks in, vital organs such as the heart and brain begin to malfunction. And because this process decreases blood flow to the rest of the body, sufferers typically go into a state of shock. In turn, this makes further complications such as kidney and liver failure more likely.
In the United States, moreover, it is estimated that some 1,500 people die from hypothermia every year. And while the very old and young are particularly susceptible as the muscles in their heart are typically weakest, the condition can strike down anyone – even fit and healthy young men.
Apparently, though, the body has two main defense mechanisms as far as hypothermia is concerned. Firstly, when cold air hits, blood is directed inwards away from the extremities, creating an insulating effect. Then, when the temperature starts to drop, we begin to shiver – which is an effective way of generating heat.
However, experts agree that the best way to fight hypothermia is to ensure that you are properly dressed for the weather. In extremely cold conditions, this should include a bottom wicking layer as well as insulation and a wind-proof outer garment. Appropriate footwear is also recommended to ward off frostbite – an irreversible condition in which the skin freezes solid.
With all this in mind, it seems as though Justin stood little chance when he wandered out into the cold night. And given his thin, casual clothes – as well as the alcohol in his bloodstream – he probably didn’t last long before hypothermia set in. Yet it was exactly this condition that caused Coleman to think twice before declaring Justin dead.
Coleman knew, you see, that hypothermia can actually save lives by slowing down chemical reactions in the body. And, crucially, such a development means that the brain doesn’t require as much oxygen as it normally does – thus making survival more likely. In fact, the phenomenon has even spawned a sort of catchphrase that the doctor has repeated to the Lehigh Valley Health Network. “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead,” he claimed.
Despite Justin’s lack of vital signs, then, Coleman instructed those on the scene to begin performing CPR. Then the young man arrived at the Hazleton facility, where staff found that they could not even get an accurate reading of his body temperature. Still, for two hours, the employees tried tirelessly to revive Justin.
With Justin hooked up to life support, emergency room workers continued CPR on his lifeless body. And even though he began to warm up, he remained unresponsive. Ultimately, though, Coleman made a decision that seemingly flew in the face of logic. Rather than give up on Justin, the team would fly him by helicopter to another facility.
“Our mind is supposed to run the show – not our hearts. Because if your heart runs the show, you can run into some problems,” Coleman explained, according to WPMT. “I just kind of threw that to the wind and said, ‘No, not today.’” So, before long, Justin was on his way to Lehigh Valley Hospital’s Cedar Crest facility, which was an 18-minute chopper ride away.
Throughout the flight, two medical staff also continued to perform CPR on Justin, although he still did not respond. In fact, nurse Tim Hickey, who was in the helicopter that day, recalled doubting that Justin would ever pull through. “People in this situation don’t survive,” he later explained to the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
But doctors were still determined to save Justin’s life. When the 26-year-old arrived at Cedar Crest, then, he was passed into the care of James Wu, who is a specialist in cardiothoracic surgery. And before long, Wu concluded that a procedure known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, was the patient’s best shot at survival.
According to experts, ECMO works by removing the cold blood and warming it before pumping it back into the body. And while this process is typically used to assist patients struggling with different conditions, Wu believed that it could help Justin to recover. Ultimately, then, the young man was hooked up to the ECMO machine.
Nonetheless, Wu remained skeptical about what could happen. “I gave him a 50-50 chance for recovery,” the doctor told the Lehigh Valley Health Network. And given those odds, he therefore warned Justin’s family that they should prepare themselves for bad news. After just an hour and a half, though, things began to turn around.
First, Justin’s body began to warm up at last. Then, rather incredibly, his heart started beating unaided. Yet Justin was far from out of the woods at this point. In fact, when John Castaldo, a neurologist at Cedar Crest, conducted an examination of the patient, he concluded that Justin possessed no brain activity. “There was little hope for functional survival,” Castaldo revealed to the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
But there was another surprise in store for the Lehigh Valley Hospital team. After a few days of treatment, Castaldo performed further tests on Justin – and this time, the results revealed that his brain activity was normal. “We were jubilant,” the neurologist admitted. “We believed there was a miracle unfolding in front of us.”
Even so, Dr. Castaldo suspected that Justin might remain in a vegetative condition. After all, his brain had been starved of oxygen for such a long time. “At first, [Justin] had no awareness of his surroundings,” the neurologist added to the Lehigh Valley Health Network.
Meanwhile, as the days and weeks passed, Justin’s family maintained a constant presence at his bedside. Indeed, although Don was divorced from his son’s mother, Sissy, the tragedy ultimately brought the former husband and wife together once more along with their daughters, Sarah and Ashley. Then, eventually, Castaldo spotted the sign that he’d been looking for.
Yes, while examining Justin’s eyes, Castaldo noted that the patient was watching him as he moved. And one month after Don had found his son’s lifeless body on the ground, the young man finally woke up. Miraculously, he had survived. Yet while Justin was conscious, the road to recovery was long.
Owing to the frostbite that Justin had experienced, for example, doctors had had to amputate all of his toes as well as the little fingers on both hands. Justin’s body didn’t work in the way that it had before, either. “It was really hard,” he told the BBC in 2018. “My muscles were frozen. I had to relearn the basics – how to tie my shoes and brush my teeth.”
Justin soon realized that he was different on the inside as well. “My brain was also affected. While my memories slowly came back, at first I couldn’t remember anything from the previous few years,” he told the BBC. In fact, to this day he struggles to recall any details about the accident that almost claimed his life.
For the three months that followed, Justin focused on recovery, moving during that period from Cedar Crest to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown, PA. And, eventually, he began to return to his old self. After a while, he even learned how to play golf again; he also continued his degree at Penn State through online learning.
Then one year later, Justin returned to Lehigh Valley Hospital to touchingly thank the people who gave him his life back. “I’m just grateful,” he announced to reporters as he embraced the nurses and doctors who had never given up. “I’m proof of what can happen when great people work together.”
Meanwhile, Coleman believes that he has learned a valuable lesson through his patient’s miraculous recovery. “This case has taught me that sometimes you have to go with your gut,” he explained, “even when all logic demands otherwise.” Nevertheless, Justin’s story should serve as a warning to those living in chillier climes. When it’s bitterly cold outside, always wrap up – and don’t take any chances.