Life in the Balance: Emergency Medicine and the Quest to Reverse Sudden Death

Sudden deaths are perhaps the hardest to accept. The heart attack that strikes without warning; the accident that takes away a loved one in the prime of life. But now, for the first time in human history, we have the ability to reverse sudden death. In communities and emergency rooms around the country, men, women, and children who almost certainly would have died 100 or even 50 years ago today survive thanks to the miracle of cardiac resuscitation. But while television shows such as ER. or Rescue 911 have made even the direst medical emergencies seem all too familiar–the wailing sirens, the arrival of paramedics, the initiation of CPR–few of us know of the decades and centuries of effort behind every successful resuscitation. 

Life in the Balance is the riveting story of the ongoing quest to reverse sudden death. Written by Mickey S. Eisenberg, M.D., Director of Emergency Medicine Service at the University of Washington Medical Center, it is infused with a dedicated doctors passion for saving lives. Eschewing medical jargon, Eisenberg takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery that ranges from biblical times to a real life, minute-by-minute resuscitation in suburban King County, Washington. The journey begins with a grief-stricken mother who brings her lifeless child before the prophet Elijah, and continues with, among others, a physician to gladiators, a Danish masseur, a Baltimore fire chief, smooth-talking medical quacks, and a crusty cardiologist. This wildly improbable but true tale includes magnets, bellows, rectal tobacco smoke, frog legs, executed criminals, bells attached to coffins, reanimation chairs, a long car ride from Kansas City to Baltimore, a serendipitous dog experiment, and a one-story hospital in Belfast. Eisenberg recreates the thrilling breakthroughs in our understanding of respiration, circulation, defibrillation, and the need for mobile emergency medical services, and confronts the limits of modern medicine. He reveals that just as critical as the ability to resuscitate is the will to resuscitate–inconceivable before the Enlightenment, when reversing sudden death would have been viewed as tampering with divine will, and still a source of painful dilemmas today in cases of brain damage or serious illness.

A first-class medical detective story, Life in the Balance is supplemented with a straightforward, easy-to-use guide to emergency CPR, a handy glossary of relevant medical terms, and a potentially life-saving Community Survival Checklist. It is must reading not only for health care and emergency medicine practitioners, but for everyone whose life has been touched by the modern-day miracle of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.


“Fascinating […] Eisenberg’s description of these developments in cardiac emergency medicine and the people involved in them makes us, too, feel involved.”


“An exciting, detailed medical detective story […] Eisenberg writes with eloquence, humor, clarity and a minimum of jargon […] This delightful book is essential reading for health care professionals. It is also absorbing reading for others, including any educated layperson who is interested in sudden death or the history of medicine.”

New England Journal of Medicine

“Fascinating insight […] a complete history of resuscitation in a style that will appeal to physician, scientist and lay reader. [LIFE IN THE BALANCE is] an excellent book for the student to understand how science progresses […] strongly recommend .”

Journal of the American Medical Association

“As much a tablet of noble truths as anything yet published on this topic […] Eisenberg is the classic choice to write such an impressive historical account […] a well-written, fascinating, informative and quick read on all of these topics. The section on the history and evolution of EMS and Prehospital Advanced Life Support alone makes this book well worth reading […] I highly recommend LIFE IN THE BALANCE.”

Journal of Emergency Medical Services

“Clearly written, engaging (medically, historically and philosophically), and useful. It may even play a role itself in the evolution of the treatment of sudden cardiac death.”

Academic Emergency Medicine

“Eisenberg’s contribution to the scientific literature has been phenomenal. He has now extended his talent by producing a masterly book aimed at the general public [...] this book is beautifully written and a delight to read. I defy even the most professional historian not to learn something they did not know before. Everyone with an interest in resuscitation will find it fascinating […] Recommend it to your friends. They will enjoy it.”


“A definitive history of CPR, superbly researched over many years […] an ambitious historical perspective, sweeping and comprehensive in its scope […] the most powerful achievement is Eisbenberg's remarkable series of interviews with the still-living giants of modern resuscitation. Eisenberg weaves these interviews into fascinating behind-the-scenes accounts. Eisenberg wrote the book for a lay audience, yet it contains a wealth of scientific and historic details to fascinate even the most sophisticated reader. I strongly recommend this book […] I guarantee that you will gain a new appreciation of the hard effort that went into giving us our everyday life-saving tools.”

AHA Currents

Awards & Accolades