Lazarus syndrome: How a US woman survived 17 hours of clinical death

Velma Thomas' 17-hour "miracle" was "one of the things that physicians and nurses can't always explain," her doctor said at the time.

 Alessandro Magnasco's The Raising of Lazarus, created circa 1715–1740 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Alessandro Magnasco's The Raising of Lazarus, created circa 1715–1740
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Velma Thomas, an American citizen, is the holder of an unusual world record.

In 2008, Thomas suffered a cardiac arrest at her Virginia home. Following hospitalization, she suffered two further heart attacks and was connected to a ventilator.

During her stay in hospital, Thomas' heart stopped beating a remarkable three times as she received treatment from doctors and entered a state of clinical death, the medical term for when the heart stops beating in a regular rhythm, causing the body the stop breathing and halting blood circulation.

The doctors made increased efforts to save the woman, who displayed no signs of brain activity, including an unsuccessful attempt at induced hypothermia in a form of targeted temperature management.

However, it was 10 minutes after doctors had disconnected Thomas from the ventilator when she shocked the world by suddenly waking up from her clinical death state - after 17 long hours.

 Body and soul (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Body and soul (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Woman wakes up after 17 hours, asks to see son

Thomas woke up as medical staff was preparing to collect her organs for donations, only requesting a single thing after the near-death experience: To see her young son.

Thomas' child, Tim, spoke to the Charleston Daily Mail following the incident, admitting that he had "already come to the conclusion she wasn't going to make it" before she regained her consciousness. 

"I was given confirmation from God to take her off the ventilator and my pastor said the same thing," Tim recalled at the time. "I felt a sense of peace that I made the right decision. Her skin had already started hardening, her hands and toes were curling up. There was no life there."

What is the Lazarus phenomenon?

The Lazarus phenomenon, also known as Lazarus syndrome or autoresuscitation after failed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, describes the spontaneous return of cardiac rhythm following failed attempts to restore the heartbeat.

The phenomenon was named after Lazarus of Bethany, who was famously brought back to life by Jesus Christ in the New Testament's Gospel of John.

The first case of the rare phenomenon was reported in 1982. At least 38 cases were reported worldwide as of 2007, according to a study published that year in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

A 2001 study, conducted by a group of medical officials from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania's Allegheny General Hospital, hypothesized that a major factor in causing the Lazarus phenomenon is the use of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), which causes a buildup of pressure in the chest. After the unsuccessful CPR attempts are made, it is possible that the release of pressure causes the heart to expand, triggering the heart to start beating again, the study hypothesized.

"There are things that, as physicians and nurses, we can't always explain. And I think this is one of those cases."

Dr. Kevin Eggleston

Thomas' Lazarus case a 'miracle,' doctor says

Thomas' experience can only be described as a "miracle," Dr. Kevin Eggleston, who treated Thomas at the time, told ABC News in 2008.

"There were really no signs she had neurological functions," he said. "There are things that, as physicians and nurses, we can't always explain. And I think this is one of those cases."

Walla! contributed to this story.