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ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — With his wide blue eyes, unruly hair and bashful grin, 26-year-old Justin Smith looks perpetually, happily surprised.
Doctors at Lehigh Valley Health Network describe the Penn State student from McAdoo, Schuylkill County, as a "medical miracle." He survived hypothermia so severe that he was literally frozen solid after falling unconscious in a snow bank while walking home in subzero temperatures.
"It's still sinking in, I guess, so it's hard to think of it as a miracle," Smith said. "I'm lucky. That's all I can say."
Smith and his family traveled to Salisbury Township last week to thank the doctors and nurses at LVHN who saved his life. His father, Don Smith, wept as he described finding his son in the snow on the morning of Feb. 21.
"I remember holding him. He was so cold, frozen. He was like a block of concrete," he said.
Justin Smith's ordeal began around 9:30 p.m. Feb. 20, as he was walking home from the Tresckow Fire Company, a social hall where he and his friends often spent Friday nights having a few drinks.
It was a 2-mile trek that Smith had made countless times, he said, to avoid drinking and driving. Smith does not recall slipping and hitting his head, but doctors believe that's what happened as he walked along Tresckow Road.
He landed face up in a snow bank, eyes open, staring at the sky.
That's how Don Smith, a Hazleton Area High School teacher, found his son the next morning around 7:30 a.m., alerted by one of Justin's friends who had called to say that she had not heard from him and was worried. The temperature overnight had fallen to 4 below zero.
Don Smith gathered his son in his arms and sobbed as he rocked back and forth in the snow. Justin wasn't breathing and had no pulse. His eyes were still open and his arms and his feet had turned black from the cold.
"I just kept praying to the Lord, 'Bring him back, just bring him back'," Don Smith said.
Paramedics believed Justin Smith was dead and called the coroner. A sheet was pulled over his head.
Dr. Gerald Coleman, an emergency room doctor at LVHN's Hazleton campus, urged paramedics to transport Smith by helicopter to LVH-Cedar Crest, where he was revived with a procedure called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation in which blood is removed, oxygenated and warmed, then returned to the body.
Dr. James Wu, a cardiothoracic surgeon, performed the delicate procedure, which is typically used to save patients whose lungs and heart are damaged by the flu or a heart attack.
Smith spent the next 15 days in a coma. When he woke up, doctors were amazed to find that he had suffered no apparent brain damage.
"This case has taught me that sometimes you have to go with your gut, even when all logic demands otherwise," Coleman said.
Both of Smith's pinkie fingers and all of his toes had to be amputated because of frostbite. But the damage could have been far worse, said Dr. John Castaldo, a neurologist at LVH.
While extreme cold can preserve organs by putting the human body in a state of suspended animation, Castaldo said, once ice crystals form in the blood stream, death soon follows.
"Justin was right on the brink," Castaldo said.
Smith spent nearly three months at LVH-Cedar Crest and at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown before returning home May 1.
Smith, who had studied at Penn State's main campus, is now finishing his psychology degree via online classes. On weekends, he works to improve his golf game, a challenge because of his lost fingers and toes.
Smith's mother, Sissy, and sisters Ashley and Sarah have been by his side throughout his recovery. His friends are glad to have him back, he said, and he's earned the nickname "Iceman" from his buddies.
As he took turns Monday hugging the LVHN doctors and nurses who had saved his life, Smith said the enormity of what happened to him hasn't sunk in yet.
"I'm just grateful. I'm proof of what can happen when great people work together," he said.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com