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Chapter 1: Death Is Here To Stay
"For all the accomplishments of molecular biology, we still can't tell a live cat from a dead cat."
Are you dead or alive? A dumb question, it would seem. If you're reading this book, you are most likely alive. You know it, but do those in control know it? Will they acknowledge it? These are no longer stupid questions. The bar for being dead has been lowered. The bar for being considered alive has been raised. The old standards for life-Are you breathing? Is your heart beating? Are your cells still intact, not putrifying?-have been abandoned by the medical community in favor of a more demanding standard. Are you a person? Is what makes you you still intact? Can you prove it? Such concepts were previously the domain of philosophers and priests, but today it is doctors who determine our legal humanity. The dead are also not immune from judgment. A presidential council on bioethics recently determined that some dead people are less "healthy" than others. It is a different world.
This is a book about physical death. It began as a simple magazine article more than a decade ago, a report on the state of the art of death determination. I assumed I would find high-tech medical equipment and techniques that would tell us when a human being had stopped living, that would pinpoint the moment that "what makes you you" is gone. I eventually abandoned this goal and the article itself. Humans have long lived in denial about their own deaths, but I discovered this denial has spread to the medical establishment, even to our beliefs about who is dead and who is alive. Our technology has not illuminated death; it has only expanded the breadth of our ignorance. Technology indicates that many of our assumptions about life and death, consciousness and unconsciousness, are wrong. Technology is telling us a great deal about our ignorance, but we are ignoring the information. My focus is scientific information about physiological death, but science and cultural factors often compete here in an unproductive manner, canceling each other out. Though we have made technological advances, they often remain unused when it comes to dealing with the dying and dead, so cultural factors-philosophy, ethics, economics, religion-cannot be ignored.
In the following chapters, you shall meet brain-death experts, undertakers, cell biologists, coma specialists (and those who have recovered from coma), organ transplant surgeons and organ procurers, anesthesiologists who study pain in legally dead patients, doctors who have saved live patients from organ harvests, experimenters who have removed the hearts of dead people and restarted them many hours later, paramedics, doctors who have used brain-dead pregnant women as human incubators, pediatric neurologists who have kept the heart of a legally dead boy pumping for twenty years, nurses who care for beating-heart cadavers, ICU doctors who are now subtly pressured into declaring their patients dead rather than saving them, hospice workers, execution experts, veterinarians who put animals "to sleep," Egyptologists specializing in mummies, doctors who communicate with those in coma and persistent vegetative state, people who have been frozen alive, doctors who take MRIs of cats while they kill them, doctors who have drained the blood from patients' heads in the course of brain surgery, lawyers, historians of death, theologians, ethicists, and many others.
Death, for most people, is not a comforting topic, and thus in the great mass of nonfiction literature devoted to the topic, death is treated as something that happens to someone else. My temptation is to write this as if I were narrating a dirigible explosion ("Oh, the humanity!"). Someone far away, perhaps in New Jersey, is dying. You, the audience, and I, the announcer, are merely witnesses. Let us reject that fiction. You, the reader, will die. If it is any consolation, keep in mind that I will also die. At my age, sooner rather than later.
During my research, I have spoken about death before groups of people on several occasions: to classes of college students, to groups of senior citizens, to people at dinner parties and other social gatherings. For the most part, those discussions have been disastrous. When I was talking at a dinner about the vagaries of brain death and the fact that our technology cannot ascertain the condition of most of the brain, one woman, a medical doctor, actually rose from her seat and yelled at me. She said that writing about this topic was "irresponsible," that it would set organ donation back decades. She threatened to "call your editor." In an undergraduate honors class at the University of Massachusetts, a senior pre-med major became angry with me when I spoke about patients in persistent vegetative state who show signs of consciousness. Her grandmother was in a comatose state, and her family was confused about what to do. The woman's estate was dwindling because of her care, and, I gathered, so were the student's hopes of paying for medical school. The premed student said that her grandmother was no longer "useful." These were two remarkable cases, but in general I made people uneasy, even angry. They defended their traditional ideas of life and death to me passionately, forcefully. My protestations that I was merely a journalist reporting facts as I found them, not making moral judgments, was of no consolation. I told the angry doctor that she could yank as many organs as she pleased out of people, and I would not stop or condemn her. I told the student that she and her family could pull the plug on Grandmother and I would not say a word. This just made them angrier. Not everyone was upset with the facts I presented. But those who were, were livid.
It was years before I figured out my apparent mistake. I assumed the information I was presenting, which threatens traditional views of death, was upsetting them. I now believe that it was something simpler: I was reminding people that they were going to die. Not someone else. Them.
Excerpted from THE UNDEAD by Dick Teresi. Copyright © 2012 by Dick Teresi.
Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.