After 11 hours in the morgue, a 91-year-old Polish woman started stirring.
Janina Kolkiewicz had been declared dead by her physician in an eastern Polish town called Ostrow Lubelski. He found her without a pulse and filled out her death certificate, Polish newspaper Dziennik Wschodni reported last week. Her family started making funeral arrangements.
“I was sure she was dead,” Wieslawa Czyz, a physician who examined her, told TV station TVP, BBC News reported. “I’m stunned, I don’t understand what happened. Her heart had stopped beating, she was no longer breathing.”
But Kolkiewicz isn’t the first to “return from the dead,” as headlines often say. An anatomical pathology technician told the Guardian the woman likely had a pulse — but a very weak one.
“Even within the medical community there is debate over what really constitutes death, and it is seen less as a single event and more as a process,” Carla Valentine, technical curator at Barts Pathology Museum, wrote in a Guardian op-ed. “It involves several different mechanisms ceasing, not just one, which is why there can be ethical arguments around brain stem death — when the person is in fact deceased but their tissues can be artificially kept alive.”
It happens, Valentine said.
In January, a 24-year-old Kenyan man named Paul Mutora woke up in a morgue after he had allegedly tried to kill himself by swallowing insecticide. When the technicians heard noises, “the mortuary attendant and a worker took to their heels screaming,” a witness told a local newspaper.
“This was a mistake from the start and I apologize to my father,” Mutora said.
In February, 78-year-old Walter Williams started kicking in a body bag in an embalming room in a Mississippi funeral home. Coroner Dexter Howard called an ambulance and had him taken to a hospital. He said he thought Williams’s pacemaker had temporarily stopped working.
Then he called the family.
Later, when they asked him what happened, he said he woke up in the hospital.
“He said, ‘I had to be sleeping through all this,’ and [Williams’s daughter] Sarah said, ‘Daddy you were dead,’ ” Gracie Williams added.
Unfortunately, two weeks later, he really did die.
There’s a term for such resurrections: the “Lazarus phenomenon,” which refers to the biblical story of Jesus summoning Lazarus from his tomb.
The phenomenon is described as “delayed return of spontaneous circulation after cessation of cardiopulmonary resuscitation,” according to a 2007 study published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Researchers counted 38 documented cases, including three where the “deceased” made it as far as the morgue before coming back to life.
However, such cases are likely underreported, the study said, in part because declaring someone dead who isn’t can have legal repercussions, especially if paramedics or doctors ceased resuscitation efforts.
Example: In April, the family of an 80-year-old grandmother revived a medical malpractice suit, claiming she had been zipped up in a body bag — alive — and put in a hospital morgue’s freezer where she froze to death.
Maria de Jesus Arroyo was declared dead in the summer of 2010 after going into cardiac arrest. She was pronounced dead at White Memorial Medical Center in Los Angeles. She allegedly wasn’t.
When Arroyo’s body arrived at the mortuary a few days later, it was face down. The body bag was halfway unzipped, and her face was battered — a broken nose, bumps and bruises, court documents said.
The problem is that even some doctors don’t quite know what death is and rely solely on the absence of a heartbeat and respiration, according to the research.
“Death should not be certified in any patient immediately after stopping CPR, and one should wait at least 10 minutes, if not longer, to verify and confirm death beyond doubt,” according to the 2007 study.
In other words, don’t be so quick to call for a body bag.