When is death? What is death?
“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”
— Miracle Max The Princess Bride
“EEG shows a flatline. This person is now dead, yet in what we may call the early stages of death.”
— Dr. Sam Parnia MD, PhD, MRCP
Is death when your heart stops beating?
That’s what the medical community, as a whole, has determined for centuries.
Dr. Sam Parnia of SUNY’s Stony Brook University in New York disagrees with the medical community’s conclusion regarding death. As he puts it: “Death is reversible.”
Parnia, the author of “Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death” has succeeded in bringing people back to life, even hours after they were pronounced dead.
His success rate when performing resuscitation is more than double the US rate of 17%. But that is only the beginning.
Parnia, a gentle, unassuming man, believes that the time will come when successful resuscitation rates will be much higher, and that doctors, through the proper application of resuscitation science, will be able to revive people who have been dead for more than 24 hours.
Methodically describing the revolutionary science at the forefront of Dr. Parnia’s lifelong work, the book outlines the process of erasing death.
The process attacks the misperceived judgments of how long brain and other cells in the body can live after a person dies. After death, without a blood and oxygen supply, there is a wide range of estimates as to cell life. For instance, bone cells can live for four days after death, skin cells for only about a day.
As for brain cells, although the supply of oxygen and energy is depleted within four to five minutes, they can remain viable but non-functioning for up to eight hours.
To preserve the integrity of the cells through the stages of death, precise cooling method and post-resuscitation care is critical if the patient is to be successfully brought back to life without brain damage. In fact, cooling and optimal post-resuscitation care is one of the dividing points between those who suffer brain damage after cardiac arrest and those who don’t.
The book claims that cooling is the most revolutionary advancement in the last 10 years.
Dr. Parnia has not only turned the medical world on its ear; he has caused many spiritual questions to be asked.
The leading of these questions is: What is Death?
Old, relied upon answers to that question can no longer be trusted, or even scientifically proven. Let’s be more precise.
What about a heart that stops beating for months on end—let’s say for 5, 6 months? Certainly there can be no arguing that if a living thing’s heart stops beating for 6 months it’s dead. Right? Not so fast.
The wood frog, unlike other frogs, does not avoid the change in seasons. When the cold weather blasts across the land the frog does not migrate or dig into the ground to avoid the cold.
Incredibly, the frog embraces the cold and allows itself to freeze over.
Kenneth Storey, a professor of biochemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada offers clarity as to the wood frog’s survival tactics.
“Once the first ice crystals reach a wood frog its skin freezes,” Storey explains. “The frog becomes hard and crunchy.”
Using nucleating proteins in its blood, the frog’s body tolerates the water in the blood to freeze first. As a consequence, the ice sucks most of the water out of the frog’s cells.
Next, the frog’s liver starts producing large amounts of glucose. The glucose stores into the cells and prevents additional water from being pulled out of the frog’s cells, a process that could extinguish the life of the frog.
“Inside the cells there’s no ice,” Storey expounds further. “It’s just really, really, really dehydrated, all shrunk down osmotically and full of massive amounts of sugar.”
In this state of suspended animation the frog’s cells are heavy with a sugary syrup, while outside the cells all the water is frozen.
No beating heart, no brain activity… Nothing… At this point—according to the medical community’s conclusion—the frog’s dead.
For months—until the end of winter—the frog’s heart does not beat, its brain does not fire out an electrical message.
After the cold, with the thaw, the frog thaw’s with it.
The blood warms. Then… the heart begins to beat again.
The brain begins firing out electrical impulses.
Once the heart starts, it pumps the blood around the animal. The animal gulps, starts to breathe, and hops away.
After months dead—according to the medical community—the frog is alive again.
Storey points out that the wood frogs can go through this cycle again and again. When spring finally arrives and decides to stay, the frog hops around unharmed.
Certainly, the wood frog’s life and death cycle is astonishing. As Dr. Parnia has proven in his lifelong work, the wood frog obliterates the medical and scientific definition of death.
While some say that the frog enters a hibernation period, this is not accurate. The frog’s metabolism does not slow, it vanishes. Better yet, it freezes.
The stopping of the heart is not hibernation—it is death. That is, if we adhere to the medical and scientific descriptions.
My novel, The Ululant Ache (TUA), shadows the above medical and scientific cases, challenging the perceived veracity of when death is. Moreover, the story seeks to answer the greater question alluded to above: What is death?
Saturated with hauntingly broken characters who have suffered through great tragedies, TUA’s story explores the boundary between life and death within the vacuum and coldness of space, asking questions as to the origin of life and challenging death’s finality.
Throughout humanity’s existence, science has searched for the answers that have driven humanity since the first man walked. Where and how does life begin? Where and why does life end? How and why do we fall in love?
In The Ululant Ache, the pain of the brokenhearted draws them to the wailing, life-giving waters of Europa, wherein, the power and majesty of the ocean moon holds the secrets of life and death.