Anna Bågenholm: The Woman Who Came Back from the Dead

snow and mountains

Thanks to radiant heaters, warm sweaters and other types of heating apparatus, we no longer have to feel cold when the temperature outside drops to freezing levels. But, despite our best efforts to stay warm, there are times we’re blindsided by freezing temperatures—people may still succumb to hypothermia, as a result of sudden, prolonged exposure to the cold. Hypothermia is a true killer, but it met its match in Anna Bågenholm, the woman who died from extreme cold only to come back to life.

Technically dead

Anna Bågenholm was skiing with her friends in the mountains of Norway back in 1999 when she encountered an accident. According to reports, Bågenholm and her party were skiing across a fresh layer of snow when she suddenly slid downhill. Witnesses said that she slid towards a frozen stream, but the ice was thin at the time, so she fell through the ice, headfirst.

When she struck through the ice it hardened right away and her friends couldn’t pull her out. Bågenholm was stuck under the ice for 80 minutes before help came. When the EMTs finally arrived she was already frozen solid and obviously had no heartbeat.

Bågenholm was airlifted to a hospital in Tromsø, where the head of emergency, Mads Gilbert, said that the Norwegian woman already looked dead. They were about to pronounce Anna Bågenholm dead on arrival but Gilbert wanted to be sure.

Gilbert told everyone that he would only declare Bågenholm dead after they were able to bring her temperature back up. When Bågenholm arrived at the hospital her body’s temperature was at 13.7 degrees Celsius/56.7 Fahrenheit.

When Sci-Fi and reality collide

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Gilbert theorized that when Bågenholm’s body temperature dropped to freezing levels it may have slowed down the brain’s shutdown that it may have saved it from dying. Some scientists say that if the body’s metabolism slows down it helps preserve the organs including the brain. So, Bågenholm may not have been breathing and may not have had a heartbeat when she arrived at Tromsø but the extreme cold may have preserved her organs, which could then be restarted.

If it sounds like a plot from Sci-Fi films, that’s because it probably is. Science fiction has dabbled on the theory that a human can be revived after several years as long as their body remains frozen – enter the branch of physics know as cryogenics. It’s the plot in the films Vanilla SkyForever Young and Iceman, all of which are science fiction films, while Anna Bågenholm’s situation was very much real.

A slim chance

Gilbert thought that there was a slim chance that Bågenholm would survive, but it was still a chance.  So, instead of declaring her dead, he decided to try and revive her. Gilbert and his team attached a heart-lung machine to Bågenholm to hopefully revive her through CPR.

Gilbert also drew out Bågenholm’s blood and had it warmed. After warming up the blood he had it put back into Bågenholm’s body. After several hours, Bågenholm’s temperature finally went back to normal, but she still did not have a heartbeat.

Despite the grim situation, Gilbert and his team did not give up on Bågenholm. At 4PM the next day, Bågenholm’s heart started working again and regained the ability to pump blood throughout her body.

She was still comatose and stayed that way for 12 days. When she miraculously awoke, the damage to her body, especially to her nervous system prevented her from standing up and walking around. But, after a year of physical therapy Anna Bågenholm was able to walk again.

So far, Anna Bågenholm is the only person who has survived hypothermia and her experience has changed the way doctors view death caused by this condition. Due to Bågenholm’s survival, doctors are looking further into hypothermia and its potential to preserve people’s organs. Perhaps cryogenics will eventually be a viable, everyday reality after all.


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