A Christmas holiday vacation in Mexico was nearly tragic for Dan O'Reilly and his family. But after a near-death experience -- and groundbreaking medical procedure that brought him back to life -- O'Reilly is a grateful, lucky man.
O'Reilly, a 54-year-old math teacher from the Edmonton-area in Canada, was toppled by a wave while he and his sons surfed off a beach in Ixtapa, Mexico.
"I turned around and just [saw] an amazingly big wave, five feet over my head," O'Reilly said. "And I jumped to ride in this thing and it just took me straight down and drove me into the sand."
O'Reilly was pulled out of the water by his sons, Connor, 13, and Brady, 11. He showed no signs of life. Attempts to revive him failed and doctors said, he was without oxygen for about 45 minutes.
"I was calling his name and telling him that we needed him here with us in this world," said Diane Persson, O'Reilly's wife. "Looking over and meeting my children's eyes and seeing the fear in there. It was as difficult as you can imagine."
O'Reilly was first taken to a local hospital and hooked up to a life-support machine. Then he was airlifted to St. Luke's Hospital in Houston where doctors decided to take an unorthodox approach to save his life: "freeze" him temporarily and then begin to warm his body.
"This gentleman was critically ill," said Joseph Varon, the first physician who examined O'Reilly. "Basically, he was almost dead to the point that I was about to declare him brain dead."
Doctors "froze" O'Reilly by using a therapeutic blanket to cool his body to 90 degrees. This freezing therapy is often used on heart attack victims, and doctors hoped it would preserve O'Reilly's tissues and prevent him from developing brain damage.
After three days of keeping O'Reilly in a state of controlled hypothermia, doctors began to warm his body. They had warned his wife that his prognosis was grim. But then they received a hopeful sign: O'Reilly smiled after doctors began to "unfreeze" him.
"A phone call came from the nurse saying, 'Mrs. O'Reilly, I want you to get back here. Dan is actually smiling,' " Persson said.
O'Reilly vividly remembers the moment he woke up.
"My first memory would be of Dr. Varon being overtop of me and saying, 'Mr. O'Reilly, I didn't think you'd make it,'" O'Reilly said. " 'There was a one in a million chance that you'd have made it through this. Glad to see you back.' "
Despite having a bruised spinal cord, O'Reilly's recovery has gone well and he is undergoing physical therapy. He feels blessed and thankful to have another chance to enjoy life and his family.
"Somehow, I just think I owe the world," O'Reilly said. "Just so many people have done so many things for me."