Why It's Possible For Some 'Dead' People To Wake Up In Morgues

The concept of waking from the dead doesn't just lie in the realm of zombie video games. In fact, experts at Medical News Today report that it may happen in real life more often than we think. The condition is known as The Lazarus syndrome, in which activity in a patient's heart suddenly resumes after having been pronounced dead following cardiac arrest.

According to a 2020 scientific review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine, some research shows that between 37% to 50% of emergency medical professionals or intensive care doctors have seen cases of Lazarus syndrome, otherwise referred to as autoresuscitation. Due to potential legal consequences, however, some experts believe the number of reported cases to be an underestimation. In one such case, ScienceAlert reports that an incarcerated individual in Spain had been pronounced dead by multiple physicians and had undergone cold storage in preparation for an autopsy when noise emulating from the body bag indicated the man to still be alive.

What causes autoresuscitation?

Although much is still unknown about the condition, one explanation for autoresuscitation is that the individual may not actually be dead in the first place, reports Medical News Today. Hypothermia, for instance, can reduce one's breathing and heart rate significantly, making these vital signs more difficult to detect. As was the case of a newborn infant with hypothermia in 2013 when physicians were unable to pick up on a pulse and inaccurately pronounced the infant dead. Alternatively, those with Parkinson's disease or epilepsy may experience a condition known as catalepsy, which can induce a minutes or weeks-long period of slowed breathing, lowered sensitivity, and renders the individual unable to move. Lastly, cases of locked-in syndrome can sometimes resemble brain death, in which paralysis leaves a patient immobile with the exception of their eye muscles.

Researchers from the previously mentioned 2020 scientific review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Trauma, Resuscitation and Emergency Medicine emphasize that extending the window of patient observation after resuscitation has been terminated may be helpful in reducing the number of Lazarus syndrome cases that occur. For example, The Academy of U.K. Medical Royal Colleges guidelines instruct physicians to observe patients for at least five minutes in order to confirm cases of irreversible cardiorespiratory arrest. By increasing the minimum observation period to 10 minutes, researchers state that as many as 69% of autoresuscitation cases could be detected.

More facts and statistics on Lazarus syndrome

While waking up in a morgue after being pronounced dead is the stuff of nightmares and horror movies, it is all too real. Lazarus syndrome may have been around for a long period of time, as the Biblical reference suggests, but it was first reported in medical writings in 1982, reports Healthline. Since 1982, a total of 63 Lazarus syndrome cases have been cited in medical writings. However, just because someone regains life after they were given a clinical diagnosis of death does not guarantee that they will return back to normal. The Smithsonian notes that while an estimated 35% of those who experience Lazarus syndrome can recover, most of the patients die.

According to Medical News Today, 82% of those who experienced Lazarus syndrome and regained their heart rhythms, did so within 10 minutes of the cessation of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Some experts believe the act of CPR could lead to the syndrome. It all has to do with a type of exertion that occurs when CPR is performed, and once stopped, the pressure from that exertion can subside and actually cause the heart to start beating again.

True stories of Lazarus syndrome

The real life accounts of people who have experienced Lazarus syndrome are astonishing and a testament to saying "it's only over when it's over." The BBC reported on a story about a 91 year-old Polish woman who was discovered in her home without a pulse and was not breathing. She was declared dead and a death certificate was made. However, 11 hours after she was placed in cold storage in a morgue, staff reported detecting movement in the body bag, and discovered that the Polish woman was in fact alive. She returned home with only complaints of being cold.

Another BBC article recounts the story of a Nigerian man who attempted to commit suicide by ingesting an insecticide. The man was treated with medication which may have impacted his heart rate. He was mistakenly declared dead, only for mortuary staff to find out that he was again moving and breathing. Luckily, the man was found alive before he was embalmed.