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Doc Gets Icy Honor

A glacier in Antarctica has been named for a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. It's an unusual honor — even more so for its connection to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. We sent WBUR health and science reporter Allan Coukell to find out more.TEXT OF STORY

ALLAN COUKELL: Dr Warren Zapol — as in Zapol Glacier — is Chief of Anesthesia at Mass General. To explain the glacier, he has to talk about seals. And to talk about seals, he has to talk about holding your breath.

WARREN ZAPOL: If I asked you to hold your breath, how long could you hold your breath for? Two minutes. Maybe.

COUKELL: He cares because it's the anesthesiologist's job to keep you alive on the operating table. Surgery would be safer if patients could last longer without breathing. So one day, Zapol started to wonder...

ZAPOL: How long can a mammal hold its breath? And somebody said, 'Well, I hear there are seals in Antarctica that can hold their breath for 60 minutes.'

COUKELL: Lounging on the frozen Antarctic sea, Weddell Seals are cute, but ungainly. Zapol soon found himself on the ice studying the seals' diving reflex.

ZAPOL: What's the diving reflex? You stop breathing. You slow your heart immensely.

COUKELL: Down to about six beats a minute, for a diving seal. And that can go on for more than an hour. We're listening to diving seals — as graceful in the water as they are clumsy out of it.

While researching seals in the mid-1970s, Zapol met "Mont" Liggins, an obstetrician who saved tens of thousands of premature babies with the discovery that a shot of a hormone could help their lungs to mature.

Liggins was interested in SIDS — sudden infant death syndrome — a major killer of newborn babies. Liggins and Zapol theorize that SIDS could be caused by inappropriate triggering of the diving reflex in infants.

ZAPOL: Remember, you were a diver. You all spent nine months inside your mother, diving. You don't breathe, or you breathe very little. You have heart rate changes and blood flow distribution changes and you are all hard-wired for diving.

COUKELL: You can test this by plunging your face into a sink of ice water. Your heart rate will drop. Seals make this transition from diving to breathing many times a day.

Could SIDS be a manifestation of the diving reflex gone wrong?

ZAPOL: We know that SIDS is more common in babies that sleep face down and whose faces are puddle in blankets and pillows. It would be very simple for a burp and some fluid to trigger the diving reflex. And if you don't adapt well to that, you can die.

COUKELL: Despite years of research, Zapol admits that this remains just one of several theories on SIDS. But he says it is as good an explanation as any.

The Zapol Glacier was named to honor the doctor's research. It sits high in the mountains, 84 hundred miles due south of Chicago. It flows into another and then another stream of ice, heading, like the seals themselves, inevitably, for the sea.

For WBUR, I'm Allan Coukell.

This program aired on May 31, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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