Lazarus Syndrome: The Strange Cases Of Life After Death

The idea of Lazarus syndrome raises some fundamental questions about the medical definition of death. Image credit: Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock.com

Every now and again, there’s a news story about an unfortunate soul who is buried or sealed in a morgue, only to later spring back to life. The reports are often shrouded in unconfirmable facts and shady sources, but the idea of coming back to life after apparently dying isn’t necessarily the stuff of tall tales and urban legends.

There are dozens of case studies where people have "come back to life" after seemingly dying, dubbed Lazarus syndrome after a miracle in the New Testament in which Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead four days after his death. Also known as autoresuscitation, it loosely refers to an event when a person goes into cardiac arrest (meaning their heart has stopped) but it spontaneously restarts and circulation resumes after attempts to resuscitate have ceased. 

study in 2020 reviewed all of the known medical literature on this curious phenomenon and managed to find 65 patients who had experienced autoresuscitation between 1982 to 2018. Eighteen of these people (28 percent) managed to make a full recovery after their run-in with death.

One case report from 2001 explains the story of a 66-yr-old man who went into cardiac arrest with a suspected leaking abdominal aortic aneurysm, meaning the major blood vessel running down his abdomen was suspected to be leaking. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors attempted to resuscitate him for 17 minutes. They tried all their usual tricks, including chest compressions and defibrillation shocks, but he was eventually declared dead. The monitors were turned off and the ventilator was disconnected, however, the surgeon remained in the room with the patient, using the opportunity as an example to teach a group of attending medical students.

Remarkably, ten minutes later, the surgeon felt a pulse. After taking necessary action, the patient’s heartbeat fully resumed, the aneurysm was treated, and he made a full recovery. 

The idea of Lazarus syndrome raises some fundamental questions about definitions of death. US law says death is defined as: “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.” It’s typically a pretty foolproof method of defining death, but it’s clear that the irreversible cessation of the heart is not always crystal clear. Sometimes it may appear to stop dead, only to unexpectedly flutter back to life.

Earlier this year, a study highlighted how death might not necessarily be an instantaneous "lights off" moment, but a comparatively slow and wandering process. Scientists closely monitored the vital signs of over 600 seriously ill patients while they were being taken off life support, revealing that the heart can often stop and restart several times during the dying process before it totally stops for good.

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