Tag Archives: death

Cryonics, or Death Swallowed Up

O’ Death,
Won’t you spare me over til’ another year
But what is this, that I can’t see,
With ice cold hands taking hold of me.
– traditional American folk song

Take the nihilistic assumption that humans are in the process of dying the moment they are conceived. Everything our bodies do is to maintain the process of surviving through creating, maintaining, and eliminating. Start messing with the supply chain, the fuel,the equipment, or the director, and the body has a problem.

If you can get it back up and running, good. If you can’t…things don’t shut down right away. Death is a process.

But how what exactly IS death? What does that look like?

The line between “alive” and “dead” is getting more and more blurred as we advance in technology. At this moment, different countries and different people define death differently. Ultimately, if the person in your story isn’t moving, breathing, and has no pulse, they’re probably going to go in the ground after a few minutes of being like that, since the brain damage sustained and the medical technology available is probably not going to get them to any livable state.

But what if you could? What would that look like?

“Not breathing.”
I can hold my breath; Am I dead? I can be choking or in laryngospasm when drowning; Am I dead yet? No? I can still have a pulse even if I’m not breathing, right?

“No pulse!”
Through chest compressions I can pump your heart for you and give you a pulse. I can run it through a machine and pump it indefinitely.

“No…self-initiated pulse?”
No pulse doesn’t mean the heart isn’t working at all, and you need an EKG (electrocardiogram, or a “heart strip”) read by a trained person to tell the difference between “ineffective pumping” (therefore not producing a palpable pulse) and “heart isn’t showing any electrical activity at all” (asystole, or ‘flat line’). 

You could be in atrial fibrillation, which is basically the heart jiggling itself like jello. It could be persuaded to pump again, given a good shock to reset it. Why do you think they call those chest-paddles “DE-fibrillation”?

Note: You cannot use a defibrillator on someone who is “flat-lined”, or in “asystole”, where there is no electrical activity in the heart. You can’t de-fib when there’s no fib. You can’t reset a rhythm that doesn’t exist. You start CPR when you hear that flat-drone, or don’t get a pulse. Put the paddles down your doctors would know better.

In some countries, death is defined as no self-initiated pulse. Even in the US, if you can’t get the pulse back after CPR (if the patient didn’t have an Advanced Directive against it and weren’t considered “DNR: Do Not Resuscitate”), the doctor will generally call it (and the doctor has to call it, not the nurse).

There’s some wiggle room though. Even in asystole, the brain may still have electrical activity.
…Remember how I said that everything is breaking down, and that this is guaranteed?

Well you can slow it. You can delay it. You can even potentially reverse it (for the most part).

Since all things are made of cells, and cells are made of parts, and those parts are made of chemicals, and those chemicals are made of atoms, and those atoms are made of….well, they’re always moving. Even solids, like a table, are always constantly shaking. In place, but, moving. Everything is in motion in some way. If you slow that down, reactions don’t happen.

If you heat up a body, things start to break down faster. Fever can be dangerous because it can “denaturate proteins”, which means, it’s so hot, hot means moving fast, moving fast means shaking apart, breaking down.

So what happens if you cool a body, such as in cryogenics?

Yes, the ‘freeze them in time’ for future revival’ thing but that’s more cryonics.

Things slow down. Do it too slow, such as hypothermia, the damage won’t be stopped. The body is mostly water, so ice crystals can form and burst cells, circulation is cut off, essentially leaving the limbs for necrosis (and gangrene to set in).

But in people who have been cooled quickly, instantly almost, the process the body goes throu-…

Okay let me back up even more. Oxygen is required for a lot of the body’s processes. There is such a thing as a “reperfusion injury”, where oxygen is introduced to an area deprived, and suddenly it has all this…currency with which to pay the men to start destroying things.

“But it has oxygen! I thought that was a good thing! Shouldn’t it be happy?”

Yeah, but remember, the body is a jerk, and runs more like a bureaucracy. The paperwork had already gone through, they just ran out of ‘money’ on the project. So no oxygen, no currency, no processes. This can cause damage.

But if the body is cooled properly, it’s too slowed to actually do anything even if it has the currency of oxygen. It’s stuck in a stasis.

Some success has been made with patients who were quickly frozen by the environment or strategically frozen when in critical condition. We pull them back with slow warming and controlling and staying ahead of the destruction. One step back, two steps forward.

Imagine this for your story:

“Red” triaged patients who would normally be tagged ‘black’ (“don’t bother”) frozen to halt the death process until an appropriate level of care can be arranged.

A hospital that is overrun with casualties that can’t reasonably stabilize everyone without putting a few ‘on hold’. 

A cryogenic chamber that flash-freezes and slowly warms the patient up to bring them back after space-travel or ‘until we have the technology to treat your condition’. 

So here’s the million dollar question:

If we can pull them back, if CPR, cryogenics, and just…act of god for all we know, can make them alive again, were they really dead? And where is that line?


The Great Spring Migration

The spring migration is late this year but I only learned that because someone died.

A close friend’s death pulled me from my concrete world, forcing me to travel across endless prairie, to see spring repaint winter’s stark world with the tender greens waving away the north wind’s last cold breaths. And in my journey to mourn, I see the spring migration – gathering energy to fly to thawing northern nesting grounds by fervently feeding on the last crop’s stubble, not one stray seed left behind. A friend had died and with her, part of my heart died yet here was nature, hopeful, fervent, telling me the cycle must continue, that despite all that happens, life stops for no one.

This journey takes me back to the farmstead home where I grew up – right in the middle of the great spring migration. Flocks of Greater and Lesser Canada geese, cranes and Snow geese formed feathery swarms. Circling gracefully down to water, then like arrows shot into the sky they circle yet again searching for perfect feeding fields.

The choruses of honks and krooos carried by cool spring winds are a music once familiar, now alien, to my ears.  These choruses are the excitement of spring, the energy of rebirth and creativity and somehow, through my tears of grieving, I am stilled to peace.

A walk across stubble fields, still too wet for seeding, floods me with memories, once known in my youth but now seem otherworldly. Who was that person who remembers where the trees once grew, where cattle grazed in pastures, where weeds were pulled from garden rows at a nickel a pail? Who is this person who now deigns to wear sandals through straw stubble, ankles scratched – a child of the city now – alien worlds converging, lifetimes past and present merging.

Walking along a windrow, a prairie chicken is spooked from the grass. My partner is now lost in his memories of times hunting before pesticides and farming diminished this delicacy. As we share the past I realize that few words can bring to life the images, the memories, the smells, the aching muscles, the laughter accompanying sliding down haystacks in winter … time has made  the once familiar foreign. The migration darkens the sky above us as birds swarm debating if this field will yield enough scattered grain. I feel the noisy migration sweep my old ghosts away for their focus is on today  – it is all that matters and all that ever will matter.

At 4 a.m., the winds change and I know, lying in the dark, protected from the diamond sky and sun’s first yawning, that it is time – that this is the last night of honking and krooing wakefulness and that silence will ensue. I leap from my bed to watch the geese and cranes, their last grazing of  grain speckled stubble fields completed, rise to the skies, circling, a choir in flight, summoning all to follow, their v-shaped lines flapping arrows aimed at northern nesting grounds.

Then, the earth gasps at the timeless glory of the final migration before relaxing with a sigh. But, the silence I expect never comes.

Instead, I hear the almost quiet – the earth’s soft belches and burps of spring moving to summer. Frogs croaking bass melody day and night, the percussion of duck calls, crows cawing oblivious to the frog’s melody, the crescendo and decrescendo of wind whispering then whistling through budding trees – the new, softer melodies of insects crawling over warming ground, farmers preparing the land for seeding, hoes working gardens. The south wind, carrying the frenzied migration northward now blends these spring choruses to new compositions.

Ah yes, the rhythm, the balance of the earth, timeless beyond man – these things I now ponder. And I also wonder about the worlds I create as I now sit in my walled home, in my city of concrete and asphalt and unearthly noise. Do my characters wander through worlds which gasp, belch and burp? Are they  aware of the subtle things which affect their lives? Am I aware of these things? Maybe. Maybe not. But I now know that sometimes we and our characters need to take the time to breathe – to feel the change, to feel the sorrow and the timelessness of life.