Back to Life: The Incredible Story of the Boy Who Died for Two Hours

When two-year-old Gardell Martin fell into his backyard creek, his heart stopped. Dead for over two hours, it would take a medical miracle to bring the toddler back to life.

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Gardell Martin standing outside his home in Mifflinburg, PaPhoto: Dustin Cohen

Back to Life: Dead for an Hour and 41 Minutes

It’s March 11, 2015, and sun pours over the ridge that borders Doyle and Rose Martin’s rural property outside Mifflinburg, Pa. Yesterday it rained all day, melting the better part of the long winter’s snow, and what the rain left behind, the sun is taking care of today. Water runs down the surrounding slopes, swelling the normally humble creeks until they nearly jump their banks. The stream that cuts through the Martins’ yard is usually ankle deep and sluggish, but today it courses angrily beneath the footbridge at startling speed, up to an adult’s waist and frigid.

The Martin boys will not squander such a lovely afternoon. After Rose brought them home from school, they hurried outside to ride bikes and gather sticks to build a fire. They are independent kids; the Martins have seven under the age of 17, with another on the way. In keeping with their own upbringings, Doyle and Rose expect their children to learn self-reliance and responsibility, the older ones looking after the younger. Today, Gary, 11, and Greg, seven, are playing with little Gardell, who is not yet two. Doyle, a trucker, is out on the road. Rose is working in the kitchen, where she can keep an eye on the boys through the window.

Suddenly Greg bursts through the door, his face streaked with tears. “I can’t find Gardell!” he screams. “He was just with me!”

Rose and her two oldest, Gloria and Grace, charge outside, hollering Gardell’s name. Just to make sure, they check the two outbuildings, but everybody is thinking about that raging creek. Rose dials 9-1-1, and the girls call their father. The property echoes with frantic shouts, as mother and children scramble along the banks of the stream, concerned about the speed of the icy grey water.

Randall Beachel is standing at his kitchen sink when he looks out the window and sees Grace and Gary running alongside the stream where it exits the Martin property. Something isn’t right. Grace is barefoot, no jacket. They’re yelling. He steps outside. “What’s wrong?” he calls to Gary.

“We can’t find my little brother!”

Randall’s heart sinks. He runs back inside, tells his wife, Melissa, what’s going on, and pulls on his shoes.

Together they rush outside, hop into their truck and drive down the road to where the creek crosses through pasture land some 200 metres downstream of the Martins’ place. They exit the vehicle and pass through two fences. Randall holds the strands of electric wire, ignoring the shocks, as Melissa climbs to the other side. When they reach the water’s edge, Melissa goes downstream and Randall begins following the brook back toward the Martins’, scanning the water’s surface. After a moment, he spots a tiny pair of navy-blue boots sticking out from the underbrush. A step or two further, and he sees the whole picture: the little boy, still clad in a hooded snowsuit, seemingly suspended on his side in the middle of that rushing stream, his face turned away from the current. (Want to read more incredible true stories? Click here!)

Randall plunges into the creek, gasping involuntarily—the water temperature is around 0 C—loses his footing and stumbles into a deep hole. He recovers, then pulls the limp little body off what turns out to b a grassy underwater knoll. He staggers back to dry land, hollering, “I found him!” as he flips Gardell over to see if he can drain the water from the boy’s mouth and lungs. An ambulance is coming up the road. Randall raises an arm to hail it.

When a paramedic races across the field, Randall hands the little boy off and watches as the rescuer rushes back toward the ambulance, performing chest compressions as he goes. By the time Randall reaches the road, the medics have torn off Gardell’s clothes. One of them has placed a mask onto the little boy’s face and is hand-pumping air into his lungs; the other is rhythmically pressing the tiny chest to force blood through the body, trying desperately to bring him back to life. That’s all Randall sees before the vehicle turns and speeds toward town.

Rose never gets so much as a glimpse of her son. She learns that he’s being taken to Evangelical Community Hospital in nearby Lewisburg. Moments later, her sister and brother-in-law arrive at the house, and together they race toward the hospital. As they rush into the emergency room 15 minutes later, Rose is told they’re transporting Gardell by Life Flight to a trauma centre. Through the windows of the waiting area, she can see the chopper on the heliport, its interior illuminated, medical workers hunched over what must be her boy’s body. Her brother-in-law is an EMT, and he can tell that they’re still doing CPR—after all this time!—but he says nothing to Rose.

Michael Lesher, the paramedic who carried Gardell to the ambulance, heads back to the station. The CPR has gone on for more than an hour; typically rescuers give up on bringing someone back to life after less than half that time. If he survives, Lesher says to himself, it will be a miracle.

A moment later, the aircraft lifts off. Rose watches through the window, tears stinging her eyes.

Dr. Frank Maffei is preparing for his evening rounds in the pediatric intensive care unit at Geisinger Med­ical Center’s Janet Weis Children’s Hospital in Danville, 27 kilometres from Lewisburg. He gets a call from the ER downstairs: a toddler is on his way via Life Flight, full cardiac arrest. Worse: CPR has been ongoing for more than an hour, to no avail.

Still, Maffei and his colleagues are ready. Upon Gardell’s arrival, four residents line up on his left side to continue CPR: each does two minutes of chest compressions, then moves to the back of the line—a strategy that preserves energy. It’s critical to get Gardell warmed up, so even as his limp little body jiggles and jolts under the force of the chest compressions, other doctors and nurses carefully insert an IV and two catheters to send warm fluids into his body, which is at only 25 C.

A resident turns to Maffei. “At what point are we going to stop?”

“We’ll stop if we warm him to 32 C and he’s still unresponsive,” Maffei says.

“What about a pH?”

The resident is referring to the acidity of the blood, which spikes when a person stops breathing and a heart stops pumping; a pH lower than 6.8 is usually considered incompatible with life.

Maffei hears himself answer, “6.5.” It’s an ambitious call. A few minutes later, the pH comes back at 6.504. No heartbeat, no breathing and a low pH: the boy is dead. (Check out Trapped Underwater: How a Group of Strangers Saved a Boy's Life.)

Objectively, Maffei knows that it’s all over. He’s been a physician for 25 years. Yet he can’t shake some strange notion that Gardell is still in there. “Keep going,” he says.

It’s now after 8 p.m., and the toddler remains unresponsive. The doctors move him to the operating room and prepare to put him on a heart bypass machine. They’ve got his temperature up to 28.6 C, but the machine will allow them to warm his blood externally and recirculate it, speeding the process. A surgeon stands scrubbed and ready to cut into the little boy’s chest.

“Let’s just do one more pulse check,” Maffei says, laying his fingertips against Gardell’s femoral artery. To his amazement, there is a pulse. His colleague Dr. Rich Lambert checks the brachial artery—there is a weak but strengthening pulse there. Excited, they stand in the OR, monitoring Gardell’s cardiac activity for more than an hour, then transfer him to pediatric intensive care.

Maffei steps out into the waiting area to meet Rose. “Gardell’s alive,” he says. “However, we have to understand that he’s alive after essentially being dead for an hour and 41 minutes.” He needs to manage her expectations: Gardell’s oxygen-starved brain could be forever damaged, but it’s too early to tell. They have to see if he’ll wake up—and what function he’ll have when he does. The following days are critical.

In the early hours of March 12, Doyle reaches the hospital. He and Rose are sitting over their son’s bed. “Gardell,” Doyle says as he always does when he returns home, “I came back from trucking to play with you. Do you want to play?”

And to the astonishment of all, the boy opens his eyes and turns his head toward his father—the boy who, a few hours before was dead, is back to life.

Gardell stays in the hospital two more days, under light sedation. He’s kept at a cool 32 C to prevent his brain tissue from swelling. He begins opening his eyes more frequently, obviously aware of his surroundings. The breathing tube is removed. He’s weaned off the sedation. On the fourth day, a Sunday, he returns home. Within a week of the incident, he’s playing with his siblings. “You would never know anything happened,” Rose says.

Randall sometimes looks over at the Martin place and chuckles at the sight of the towheaded youngster kicking dirt around in the garden or chasing his brothers. “It’s truly a miracle he came back to life,” he says. “Truly a miracle.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada