When you gotta go…
Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that I’m obsessed with death and dying – because I’m not. I rarely think about it. But occasionally, like everyone else I guess, I wonder what that final moment will be like and how it will happen. I’ve never had a near death experience so I can’t tell you. Nor have I wafted down some tunnel with light at the end of it and relatives saying to me “go back, it’s not your time yet”. Mind you, I’ve been down many a dark tunnel with no light at the end of it – oh, sorry that would be another post about my work in KM and organisations :)-
So….if you have no interest in gaining some knowledge about the ultimate human experience, read no further. But if you are at all intrigued about what happens when you’re number is up, then I’ll share with you what I’ve learnt from the latest issue of New Scientist (No 2625). I think we could say that New Scientist is a tad obsessed with cheating death since a large slab of this issue is devoted to extremely interesting articles on how our current culture chooses to shun death; how longer lifespans will present society with some pretty nasty moral dilemmas; and…..how it feels to die.
But first…as I was reflecting on these articles, I was thinking of a book I just polished off – Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters. Second reading of this book for me (love her writing) but this time around I was really caught up with the sorry life of Gideon Mantell, a doctor who’s claim to fame is discovering some of the first dinosaur fossils, particularly the iguanadon. I say sorry life because this poor dude, apart from having to slug it out with Richard Owen – his long-time nemesis – suffered a horrible accident in 1841. His carriage rolled over and he was left with debilitating spinal injuries, which ultimately led to painful deformity and snuffing it from an overdose of opium as he tried to relieve the pain. (As an aside: Owen had his spine removed, pickled it and put it on display at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Eewww!).
Victorian times were filled with stories of children succumbing to epidemics; women dying during childbirth; people high on opiates to relieve pain; and crippling deformities that possibly could be resolved in the hands of modern medicine. Death was a regular and common visitor for Victorian families. Children were exposed to corpses lying in coffins in the family parlour, tarted up to look “alive” and ready for the family viewing. Death was maybe feared but it was not hidden, not even from children.
Cut to contemporary times: death and the elderly are the “invisibles”. We see death in movies sure, but “real death” is taboo. It’s entirely possible for a relative to die in an aged care facility and the body never seen as it moves from facility to funeral parlour and on to burial or cremation. There is an increasing trend towards family and friends not wishing to “view” the body and, as our lifespans increase, it is entirely possible that many young people have never encountered real death. The dead, like invisibles, can be shunted off to the funeral parlour while the consumerist society parties on. This is in sharp contrast to earlier times, when “ageing” really didn’t happen because 200 years ago, for example, the average human life span was about 30 years. People died young and often rapidly due to infections and epidemics. Now death is a slow descent marked by degenerative diseases and failing, confused minds. Ageing is an artefact of culture – a medical construct if you will – as medicine has eliminated some causes of death, people live life long enough now to suffer from old-age diseases like osteoporosis, rheumatism, heart failure, diabetes, strokes and so on.
So if you check out of life earlier and don’t hang around long enough to suffer through Alzheimers or the aged-care facility that will cost you every cent you have, then this is how it might feel to die according to New Scientist, not me! Don’t read on if you think you’ll get distressed.
Drowning: I must admit to a fear of swimming pools. I’m a strong swimmer but I must have watched too many sci-fi films when I was younger, the sort that have murky, dark pools in which something sinister lies at the deep end. So whenever I see a swimming pool, I’m not overly keen to jump in. And then there’s the fact I can’t hold my breath for longer than two nano-seconds. So these two factors combined could cause me a problem and death by drowning is a thought that has occurred to me. Should you go this way, you can expect to thrash around and gasp for air for around 20-60 seconds; then start sinking while valiantly holding your breath. This will last 30-90 seconds, then you’ll cough and splutter and start to inhale water. Water in the lungs blocks gas exchange in delicate tissues and inhaling more water triggers the airway to seal tight. Basically, you’re toast at this point and survivors say that “there is a feeling of tearing and a burning sensation in the chest as water goes down the airway. Then that sort of slips into a feeling of calmness and tranquility”. The calmness apparently means you are losing consciousness from oxygen deprivation.
Heart attack: I reckon when you gotta go, it would be good to simply drop dead on the spot preferrably with your last vision being of something beautiful (George Clooney would do that for me). But heart attacks don’t always cooperate with us that way, they can come on slowly and seem like indigestion or conversely a huge elephant sitting on your chest. Either way, you have around 5 mins to get help or…you’re toast.
Bleeding to death: known as exsanguination or bleeding out. You can go in seconds if the aorta, the major blood vessel from the heart, is completely severed. Or it can be much slower if an artery has only been knicked. The human body has 5 litres of blood (if you’re a vampire, this fact will come in handy). If you lose 1.5 litres, you will feel weak, thirsty, anxious and you’ll be taking rapid breaths. By 2 litres, people experience dizziness, confusion and then unconsciousness. Survivors of haemorrhagic shock report a range of feelings from fear to relative calm.
Fire: I’m leaving this one out as it’s just too gruesome. But it appears that you’ll be dead from toxic gases long before you feel the excruciating pain from the nerves destroyed or the inflammatory response.
Decapitation: it always seemed to me that the guillotine was a cruel way to go. But it seems if you have a choice, this might be the fastest and least painful way to exit (assuming that blade is razor sharp that is). So maybe the French who lined up all those royal dudes during the French Revolution and sent them for the chop had the right idea after all. But then again…..the jury’s still out because quick though it may be, consciousness may continue after the spinal chord is severed. Possibly for 7 seconds or up to 30 seconds.
Poor Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 faced an ax rather than the guillotine. It’s said it took the axeman three attempts and he had to finish her off with a knife. And then there’s Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury, who in 1541 was at the mercy of an inexperienced axe man who gashed her shoulder rather than her neck. Mary leapt from the chopping block and was chased by the executioner who struck her eleven times before she died.
Lethal injection: maybe some of us think that we are more civilised than Tudor England and that a quick lethal injection is a more humane way to go. Think again. Lethal injection was designed in 1977 in Oklahoma as an alternative to the electric chair. There are three injections involved: the first one is the anaesthetic thiopental to zip away any feelings of pain; this is followed by a paralytic agent called pancuronium to stop breathing; then…potassium chloride, which stops the heart almost instantly. But if the dose of thiopental is stuffed up (apparently the same dose is given regardless of body weight), then awareness of what’s going on is a very real possibility. The person could have feelings of suffocation from paralysed lungs and the searing, burning pain of a potassium chloride injection. But the effect of the paralytic may mean that witnesses to the death may never see the internal struggle going on.
Explosive decompression: this is the one that most interests me. I spend a lot of time reading about space – the Apollo 13 incident really freaked me out. I admit to wondering what it might be like to get flung out of an airlock a’la Star Trek or being happily traversing the lunar landscape only to look down and see…gasp…a tear in your (preferrably pink) spacesuit. Apparently, death due to space depressurisation has only happened once – in 1971 when the Russian Soyuz 11 mission was returning to Earth and a seal leaked on re-entry. All three crew members died from asphyxiation.
But this is what happens – when the external air pressure suddenly drops, the air in the lungs expands, tearing the fragile gas exchange tissues. Now, if you try and hold your breath or if you haven’t exhaled prior to decompression….well, you’re toast. Oxygen escapes from the blood and lungs. It’s quick though – about 15 seconds or less.
I was thinking of booking a seat on Virgin Galactic, so if the worst happens and I go this way, at least it’s not as bad as say electrocution or hanging. Well, an extremely fascinating if rather macabre New Scientist issue. Tomorrow I’ll concentrate on Knowledge Management, which some cynics could say is death by slow torture for those of us working as KM practitioners :)-
Entry filed under: Science.