When Can Someone Be Called Dead?

For much of his life, Blair Bigham thought that there was an irrefutable line between alive and dead. When he worked for a decade as a paramedic in the Toronto area, he saw the body as simple: Oxygen would flow into the lungs, absorbed into the blood, got pumped to cells which broke it down along with glucose absorbed from the gut, and then goes down to create the microscopic bits of energy a person needs to live. He thought death as something simple as well. For him, it was the time “when no new energy was generated, when the batteries drained, and when the lights went out.”

I had pronounced dozens of people dead. In particularly horrific cases, when someone had, for example, been the victim of a house fire or blunt-force head trauma, I didn’t even need to check a pulse. The pallid colour of the skin, the emptiness of the eyes, and the body’s acquiescence to gravity said it all.

But when he began medical school in 2012, his way of thinking was challenged.

In the hospital, people seemed to die, well, slower than they did in the field. There were often no car accidents or bullets or torn aortas that I could point to as the cause of their demise. Death was no longer sudden. Instead, I tended to people who were dying—a process that could take days, weeks, months, or even years. The line between life and death started to feel blurry. When I started working in the intensive-care unit (ICU) as a senior medical student, that line became even harder to bring into focus.

Inside the hospital, Bigham would experience something that would shake his view about life and death down to its core. Know more about his experience over at The Walrus.

(Image Credit: RyanMcGuire/ Pixabay)


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When I interned as a hospital chaplain many years ago, I watched a patient die. It was the first time I had witnessed an event like that. It's nothing like on TV.
There was no beeping of the heart monitor to a flat line. Rather, the electrical activity in the heart slowly faded away. She also visibly shrank and the shape of her face changed as she faded out.
It was a wondrous and sacred moment.
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