Don Smith saw his son's boots first, just the steel-toed tips, peeking out from a snow drift along the side of the road.
He screeched his car to a stop and clambered out into the early-morning dawn. Peering through the hazy glow of his headlights, he knew the lump in the snow as his son.
“I looked over and there was Justin,” Smith told Pennsylvania TV station WNEP. “He was blue. His face was lifeless. I checked for a pulse. I checked for a heartbeat. There was nothing.”
The 25-year-old had been lying in the cold for almost 12 hours. It was several degrees below zero and had been snowing all night.
"I started screaming, 'Justin! Justin, wake up," Smith remembered. "But he didn't wake up. I dug my phone out of my pocket and dialed 911. It seemed like everything was moving in slow motion."
When emergency personnel arrived, they couldn’t find any signs of life, either.
An EMT draped a white sheet over Justin Smith’s lifeless body and the county coroner was called.
Meanwhile, Don Smith sat on the back of a police cruiser and telephoned Justin’s mother to tell her the unimaginable news.
"I told her, 'Our son is gone,'" Smith said. "And she immediately began to sob."
Except, he wasn’t gone...
Dr. Gerald Coleman was the emergency room physician on duty at the Lehigh Valley Hospital on that cold winter's morning, February the 21st, 2018.
“My clinical thought is very simple — you have to be warm to be dead,” Coleman told the Standard Speaker.
To the surprise of the cops and Justin's father, Dr. Coleman immediately ordered paramedics to start performing CPR on the young man who had no pulse and no blood pressure.
"Justin had probably taken his last breath some half a day before," said Dr. Coleman.
Almost a year later, Justin Smith held a news conference to thank the medical team that saved his life.
But how is any of this even remotely possible?
Smith’s unbelievable survival story is a tale from the cutting edge of emergency medicine and, indeed, the edge of death itself. Thanks to new technology and an evolving, modern understanding of "what death really is," doctors are increasingly able to bring some fortunate people back from the great beyond.
Medical science is now finally beginning to take advantage of the same mechanisms that allow the body to withstand seemingly lethal cold — and save a whole cadre of diverse patients.
Gunshot victims, heart attacks, spinal injuries and even premature babies on the verge of brain damage are being revived, whereas many of these cases were once considered well beyond rescue.
So, what's the secret? How are doctors doing this?
The secret that saved Smith — and countless others — lies in the way the body slows down as it gets colder.
According to Dr. Coleman, human metabolism slows by about 5 percent for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit drop in body temperature.
"At 95 degrees Fahrenheit, just 3.6 degrees below normal, a person will begin to shiver uncontrollably," said Coleman. "And at 90 degrees, their speech will slur; At 82 degrees, they’ll lose consciousness; And by the time their temperature falls into the 60s, their heart will cease to pump blood."
It’s an alarming course of events, but in some cases like Smith’s, it can save a person’s life.
"Their lethargic cells don’t require as much oxygen, so the fact that their heart has slowed and their breathing has ceased is dangerous, but not necessarily deadly," added Coleman.
These people persist in a state of suspended twilight, seemingly dead by all the usual measures, but not irreversibly so.
There's just one little trick to the entire endeavor, one special consideration to making the "whole thing work..."
When a person’s body chills at the right rate, the associated slowing of metabolic processes will protect them from the other detrimental effects of exposure.
"It can't happen too fast," said Dr. Coleman. "Otherwise, ice crystals form inside the cells and destroy the fragile structures. Of course, if the freezing is too slow, it doesn't offer adequate protection while the heart is stopped. Take Justin's case, for example."
Justin Smith was walking home from an evening out with friends, a little after nine o'clock on February 20th. He slipped, fell, and hit his head — and then was slowly buried in the falling snow.
He wasn’t discovered until 12 hours later.
But despite the protestations of the paramedics, Coleman ordered them to start CPR anyway.
For two hours, emergency staff artificially stimulated Justin's heart and puffed breaths into his mouth. Eventually he was flown — through a record-breaking snowstorm — to another hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Once there, doctors pumped Smith full of warm, oxygenated blood.
Then later that evening, his heart began to beat on its own...
No one could predict how Justin's brain might have been affected by the prolonged period without oxygen.
Conventional medical wisdom dictates that the human brain can only withstand four minutes without oxygen before the cells begin to die.
"Of course, Justin’s case was anything but conventional," said Dr. Coleman.
When he awoke from his coma two weeks later, Justin was disoriented, weak, missing two pinkies, and all ten of his toes due to frostbite.
Fortunately, his mind was ultimately unaffected. He was released from the hospital in March, finished his physical rehab in April, and then returned home in early May.
Justin has re-enrolled at Penn State University and is currently finishing up his degree in psychology.
“I consider myself a miracle,” he told the Standard Speaker.
And although the medical aspect of his ordeal is incredible by any standard, Justin's account of "what happened" while he was "dead" is getting quite a bit of attention as well...
"After I died, I left my body and was just kinda floating above it, watching the snow fall on my face," Justin Smith said. "It's funny, but I knew I had died and was completely fine with that."
At some point, a tunnel formed and Justin found himself being pulled towards "a bright, white light — a beautiful light."
"I had actually read some stuff about people who've had near death experiences, so none of this was really surprising to me," Justin explained. "It was the most natural thing in the world."
Around 20% of cardiac arrest survivors and 4-9% of the general population are estimated to have had a near death experience, or NDE. But, they are believed to be under-reported, so the actual number of people who have one is probably much higher.
Those reporting NDEs often describe a profound psychological event that is mystical, transcendental, or even spiritual in nature; where the normal boundaries between space and time are blurred.
And while it's perfectly reasonable to be skeptical about these claims, there is actually quite a bit of good, scientific evidence that validates the experiences of people like Justin...