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'I was recently restored to life after being dead for several hours' 

The truth of this statement depends on the changing and surprisingly imprecise meaning of the word: 'dead'. 

Until the middle of last century a medical person may well have declared me dead.  I was definitely dead by the rules of the day.  I lacked most of the essential 'vital signs' of a living person and the technology that sustained me in their absence was not yet perfected. 

I was no longer breathing; I had no heartbeat; I was limp and unconscious; and I failed to respond to stimuli, like being cut open (as in a post mortem examination) and having my heart sliced into.  Until the middle of the 20th century the next course would have been to call an undertaker; say some comforting words then dispose of my corpse: perhaps at sea if I was travelling (that might be nice); or it in a box in the ground; or by feeding my low-ash coffin into a furnace then collect the dust to deposit or scatter somewhere.

But today we set little store by a pulse or breathing as arbiters of life.  No more listening for a heartbeat or holding a feather to the nose. Now we need to know about the state of the brain and central nervous system.  According to the BMA: '{death} is generally taken to mean the irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness combined with the irreversible loss of capacity to breathe'.  In other words, returning from death depends on the potential of our brain and central nervous system to recover from whatever trauma or disease assails us.

Under this view a beheaded queen or someone shot in the heart could still be alive for up to five or even ten minutes in a cold climate, after the chop or pop.  If they passed-out as a result of the trauma, as when a person is hanged, does it matter when cell-death or brain-death occurs?  Is one who is no longer capable of returning to consciousness truly alive anyway? 

Throughout my recent procedure I was totally unconscious. I experienced nothing and time was meaningless: was it a second or a week?  I had no thoughts; no dreams; no hallucinations; nothing; just an indeterminately long moment of blackness. There were in total three procedures requiring anaesthesia and I experienced this same nothingness three times.  In each case I woke suddenly to a new reality: place and time and physical condition with no recollections; and no dreams. 

I now attend Cardiac rehabilitation with a number of people who have had a very similar experience.  Most of us have the same telltale scar down our chests. I have asked several if their experience differed from mine.  None has reported anything but 'blackness'.

Of course I'm not Lazarus, nor are they.  My body was not actually dead. I was certainly unconscious; my lungs were not functioning; my chest was cut open; and my heart was stopped and in pieces under the surgeon's scalpel, yet I was still alive, because the colony of cells that is me remained relatively undamaged, still a viable living organism thanks to the continuing supply of oxygenated blood.  This ensured that my brain, in particular, was undamaged, so 'consciousness combined with the capacity to breathe' could be restored to normal when my heart and lungs began working again and anaesthesia ceased.  

Courtesy of a machine my cells sustained most bodily functions as usual; continuing to absorb oxygen and nutrition from the blood that continued to course through my arteries and my veins.  Thus the great majority of my cells, including those in my brain, continued to go about their daily business of living dividing and dying, oblivious to the unusual circumstances of the corporate entity.  

Due to being chopped up more than the normal quota of cells died that day.   These dead cells were replaced, or will be, by living cells dividing.  Thus the balance of life and death in my body remained more or less unchanged.  In the hours and days that followed, when the trauma of being cut open became apparent to the repair mechanisms of my cellular colony, cell division accelerated: cleaning up the mess and healing got underway. 

Our bodies are prepared for this. Healing is programmed in. Every day a small part of each of us dies physically. Due to apoptosis (programmed cell death) a normal adult looses and creates about 60 billion cells every day.   During the lifetime of the cellular colony that is us we are replaced several times over.  Thus we are each like Washington's proverbial axe that has had both its handle and its head replaced or the backpacker's VW kombi van that gets a new transmission; engine; wheels; suspension; body panels; and interior but is somehow still the same van. 

Getting a new heart valve is an interesting experience.  It brings home a reality that human circulatory system is essentially plumbing.  In its natural condition the human heart is just a muscle that continuously squeezes and relaxes it's two chambers, like one of those pumps for blowing up an air mattress, with valves at either end to stop the fluid coming back (regurgitation) and to make it go in one direction only.  Likewise, the heart and lungs can now be replaced for hours-on-end by a machine, its pumps driven by small electric motors, together with a membrane system through which oxygen can be fed to enrich the blood. 

In my case, as a result of faulty genetic design, one of my valves, the big one into my aorta, was no longer functioning properly, causing both restricted forward flow (aortic stenosis) and regurgitation.  This in turn enlarged my heart muscle and presaged catastrophic heart failure sometime soon.  Fortunately, these days, there is a spare parts shop from which one can order a replacement valve.   Thus one of my parts is no longer 'a factory original'. 

The first successful aortic valve operation was performed in 1960,  But back then the plumbers, at General Motors and elsewhere, were still perfecting their bypass machines.  These had first appeared at the end of the 19th century in Germany but they were well before valve surgery was possible and also killed a proportion of the patients due to clotting and other complications - 'Sie haben eine 40/60 Chance').  By the 1970's microfiber oxygenators, that better mimic the lungs, and centrifugal pumps, that did less damage to the blood, had much improved the bypass machines.  So by the 1980's the cardiopulmonary bypass (or heart-lung) machine, had evolved into a reliable bit of hospital kit, like kidney dialysis machines, that seldom killed or injured the patient.  So surgeons could now really go to town with their scalpels and sutures and get some serious cardiac experience under their collective belt. 

Meanwhile, the valves that these increasingly skilled surgeons found on their spare parts shelf were also evolving.  The early ones were a straight bit of metal plumbing of the sort you might find at your local gasfitters: a ball valve like the one on the top of a child's swimming snorkel; or a flap like the one in a car's carburettor.  But metal parts caused the blood to clot and patients had to take powerful blood thinners for life.  So animal valves, usually taken from a pig's heart, soon appeared on the surgeon's parts shelf and soon gained popularity, particularly for older patients for whom blood thinners are dangerous and who would probably die of cancer (or some other dread ailment) before the pig tissue wore out.

Now these valves have improved yet again; I hope.  Mine is entirely fabricated from processed leather that was once a bovine pericardium, the tough tissue around a cows heart. 

 

Heart Valve 400p

My New Heart Valve

The picture is a serendipitous composite of an x-ray taken from my left side showing the stainless-steel wire bindings reconnecting my sternum (to the left). The fine circular object near the image centre (with three peaks) is the metal supporting frame for the tri-cuspid tissue aortic valve (made from bovine pericardium - neither a silk purse nor a sow's ear) that now replaces my old natural valve that had become stenotic (aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the aortic valve opening). It's due to my genes (not lifestyle).

The overlying image is a reflection of me photographing the X-ray negative with my phone.

 

So the timing could not be better for me.  Fortuitously, this entire technology and surgical expertise has been invented and perfected within my lifetime and it has become relatively mundane, and therefore safe and affordable, just when I need it. 

Is this the Anthropic Principle at work?  Is this universe made real or selected because I am living in it?  I've discussed this idea elsewhere on this website in The Meaning of Life but you might want to see what Wikipedia (link) says.  Fans of The Big Bang Theory will recognise Sheldon's' frequent conjectures concerning different universes.

I have long been persuaded that it is nonsense to believe that I; or you; or anyone; has any awareness of anything once our brain ceases to function. 

As I said in my Eulogy to my mother, also on this website: "...our lives are a tale we tell ourselves to make sense of our sensations; our experiences.
For each of us this tale begins when as children we realise we can do things that change our world. From that moment on, this increasingly complex universe we create in our head; the tale we compose; is the only reality we have and it ends when our brain stops for the last time
".

Some who suffer a profound but relatively prolonged threat of death, as for example when drowning or in a crashing car, sometimes report their life flashing before them.  At the actual point of death those brought up in those traditions may hold some flicker of consciousness long enough to see a distant light or 'pearly gates'. Then again, perhaps those who are wrenched back to consciousness after experiencing 'death' recover some deeply implanted version of their particular death myth.

I would have been astounded to have seen something of that sort when I was 'dead' and so I did not.  My father who had already been technically dead several times told me at a very young age that: 'everything just goes black - then you wake up or you don't'.  After similar open heart surgery to mine my mother confirmed the same experience.  Her last words to me, when she just wanted to die, were an angry: "don't ever wake me up again!

So the prospect that I would not wake up from that nothingness held no fear for me. If I didn't I wouldn't know.

Maybe this simply confirms Freud's observation that each adult is unavoidably a product of the experiences and beliefs of their early childhood.  Thus a Hindu; Jane; Confucian; Jew; Christian; Sunni or Shia child will generally adhere to the family beliefs, just as once the child of an ancient Roman; Greek; Mesopotamian; or Viking perpetuated those now even stranger beliefs.  As I reached the age of reason I soon came to realise that others had very different beliefs to mine, and they from each other, in such profusion that our imaginative mythmaking is one of the most interesting things one can observe about our fellow humans.  For me this variety is one of the great motivations to travel the world.

As their life drew to a close I'd discussed their impending death with each of my parents.  Both believed that they would neither know nor care how we disposed of their corpse, nor for that matter their possessions.  Each asked that we did not do anything too elaborate.  Their funeral would be for our sakes not theirs.  They had no expectation of knowing anything about it.  My father insisted he wanted us to get a cardboard coffin and cremate him with minimum expense.  But of course my mother and I chose something more befitting his memory; and his status in our lives and those of others who would miss him.  Likewise my mother when her time came. 

My parents are dead but their deeds and their genes and our memories of them go on. Thus even in death we each continue to have a profound affect on the future, through the living.   

All this has led me to believe that the status we ascribe to the dead is entirely a matter for the living.  Posthumous accolades are obviously useless to the dead.  At best memorials we hold to record their achievements, or perhaps their sacrifice, are for the edification and comfort of the living; at worst they are crass social or even political posturing.  This must be so as the dead are already oblivious to these living events - they are dead.

To my intellectual scepticism concerning religious myths around awareness after death I can now add the evidence of my own direct experience.  It was black then I woke up, my father was right, what are the odds?   And in having this procedure and risking the alternative: not waking up, I may have postponed that experience; or rather lack of experience; for a few more years or perhaps even decades?  Time will tell.

For a longer discussion on this website see The Prospect of Eternal Life

 

 

 

 

Comments  

# Leslie Farkash 2016-11-30 00:13
Great article and surreal experience.

Having worked with Telectronics and Geoff Wickham in a past life as they say, and seeing first hand the wonderful life prolonging advancements in medical technology especially in the last decades, your article struck a chord with me.

I am also of the view that when the computer plug is pulled out there is no life without the life sustaining energy required to to keep it functioning. The saved memory and all the associated programmes will dissipate into the void.
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