Peter Safar MD passes away

Peter Safar passed away at the age of 79. He is to be considered the father of modern emergency first aid and a pioneer of the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive victims of respiratory deficiencies. His many innovations for recovery from cardiac arrest and shock included techniques based on the idea that mild hypothermia could prevent brain damage.

Safar was born in Vienna, the son of an ophthalmologist father and a paediatrician mother. After high school, he was accepted into the University of Vienna medical school in 1943. After holding a surgical fellowship at Yale from 1949 to 1950, Safar moved to the University of Pennsylvania to train in anaesthesiology – it was here that he developed his ideas about how the methods used to sustain patients during surgery could be refined for emergency resuscitation of people close to death.

He then moved to the national cancer institute in Lima, Peru, where he established an anaesthesiology department, before, in 1954, joining the Baltimore City hospital, Maryland (now Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Centre), where his research in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation began in earnest. In Baltimore, he created the first multidisciplinary medical-surgical intensive care unit.

Safar also began his lifelong crusade for the training of lay people in first aid and other lifesaving techniques, largely because they were often the first on the scene in life-threatening situations.

He preached the need for a cadre of specially trained non-physicians to carry out treatment on the way to hospital, an idea he was convinced could save many from dying needlessly before they reached the emergency room. The result of his efforts can be seen in the modern ambulance, and today’s methods of intensive care based on Safar’s ABC of resuscitation: airway, breathing and circulation.

The life of Safar was reinforced by tragedy. He and his wife were away from home when their only daughter and eldest child, 11-year-old Elizabeth, had a devastating asthma attack and sustained a cardiac arrest before Safar could reach her. Although her circulation was restored, she suffered brain death.

Following his daughter’s death in 1966, he intensified his energies in research into brain resuscitation. Safar’s studies in brain resuscitation focused on hypothermia.

The fundamental challenge of resuscitation, he said, lay not in the heart but in the brain: “When sudden cardiac death occurs at normal body temperature, brain damage will be permanent after five minutes.” Although the heart can recover after nearly 20 minutes without a beat, brain cells are more delicate.

Peter Safar, physician, born 12 April 1924; died 3 August 2003. (Article partly reprinted from the Guardian Newspaper Ltd.)

ILS conveys to his family, his wife and two sons its deepest condolences.