Ben grew up in Chicago in the 1980s, which for most kids meant worshipping at one of two altars: Michael Jordan or Walter Payton.
Instead, he drank deep from the cup of Galileo, chasing it with shots of Newton, Curie, and Einstein—the scientific visionaries whose curiosity and drive he recognized. His third-grade teacher encouraged his parents to transfer him to another school because he had read every science book the school owned, and she had nothing left to teach him. “I just remember him going into his room to play with his beakers a lot,” says his sister, Sarah, my wife.
At 15, Ben began conducting experiments at a University of Chicago laboratory; at 17, he won the Museum of Science and Industry’s Outstanding Young Scientist Award and flew to Oslo for the Nobel Prize ceremony. After earning third place in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for a genetic-engineering project in which he mapped bacterial chromosomes—just, you know, for the fun of it—Ben landed on the cover of U.S. News & World Report. The inquisitive kid who spent his adolescence practicing science the way some practice jump shots got so good that his high school lobby had a display case devoted to his exploits. “I was proud but embarrassed,” he says.
Fast-forward 15 years and he had degrees from Johns Hopkins, Cambridge, and Washington University, and was working at the University of Chicago’s Emergency Resuscitation Center. Frustrated with the lack of options for cardiac arrest patients, he and the center’s director, Lance Becker, began experimenting on mice with a little-known procedure called therapeutic hypothermia.
No one’s sure exactly why it works, but lowering the body temperature of a patient in distress is one of those medical oddities that goes way back. Egyptians tried it 5,000 years ago; Hippocrates recommended packing the wounded in ice to reduce bleeding in ancient Greece. In the 1930s, a Philadelphia neurosurgeon named Temple Fay invented a cooling blanket that provided patients with continuous circulation of chilled fluids. A few decades later, pioneering doctors such as Donald Benson and Peter Safar experimented with hypothermia for post-arrest patients.
The practice remained on the outskirts of traditional medicine until 2002, when two randomized studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrated that cooling patients could provide a significant improvement in post-cardiac arrest survival rates. Many in the field ignored the findings. Others dismissed them outright. But Ben and Lance were undeterred.
The Chicago team began refining its own cooling protocol. They found that lowering a post-arrest patient’s temperature from 98.6 degrees to as low as 91 degrees for 12 to 24 hours, and then slowly rewarming him, could protect neural tissue by reducing inflammation and slowing metabolism. Doing so would essentially allow a malfunctioning brain to reset itself before irreversible cell damage could occur. If they were right, mild hypothermia could nearly double the chances of a full neurological recovery with almost no side effects beyond pneumonia.
Just months after the 2002 studies, the University of Chicago hospital successfully cooled its first patient. With no cooling devices available, Lance and Ben used Ziploc bags filled with ice on another early patient. “The cooling went great, but the bag leaked water all over the floor of the ICU,” Lance recalls.
Other saves soon followed. “More than once, physicians and nurses were convinced a patient was dead, but we were able to save them,” Ben says. “We had a number of survivors who made full recoveries after cooling.”
Other departments in the hospital took notice and began to implement the procedure, and Lance’s team plugged it relentlessly. They published studies, ran training courses for nurses, and brought in speakers to explain the procedure—all while simultaneously trying to persuade their skeptical bosses.
Their work caught the attention of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. A massive academic research center with a reputation for innovation—and $5.3 billion in annual operating revenue—Penn wanted to start its own Center for Resuscitation Science. They recruited Lance, Ben, and other staffers from Chicago and relocated them to West Philadelphia.
With Penn’s muscle behind cooling, its “dream team” established a protocol for post-arrest care in multiple Penn hospitals and collaborated with other institutions in southeast Pennsylvania. Ben ran online training courses and lectured everywhere from
Singapore to Costa Rica. The American Heart Association
officially added therapeutic hypothermia to its CPR guidelines. The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, and National Geographic all ran stories on cooling; in 2007, it landed on the cover of Newsweek.
Ben’s phone rang at all hours. Calls came from physicians, from panicked family members, from a critical care unit at an Air Force hospital in Balad, Iraq. He answered them all. “One of the things I’ve always romanticized is the image of the country doctor in a small town,” he says. “You know, someone in the village runs in while you’re having coffee in your kitchen and says you’re needed in someone’s house, so you get your bag and run out to the horse and buggy. And all of a sudden you’re doing medicine wherever it’s needed. In another time and place, that would’ve been me.”