Thursday, July 16, 2015

Death : Digital and otherwise

1956. I must have been seven years old then, and I often wondered why my mother was spending so much time at her brother's place, and why , this time, my paternal aunt downstairs was now involved in organizing my birthday.  I might have been considered too young to understand.

My maternal grandfather was sick, bedridden, and sinking. The family rallied around, spending time with him, trying to communicate with him, even though he didn't seem to be responding. My first encounter with a death, was when we were all taken to my uncle's place, to do namaskars to my late grandfather.  We grandkids, of a certain age , took a bit of time understanding what had happened, and learned to accept that people gradually fade away  and become a memory.  Those children who stayed in that house, saw the ebbing away of a life in detail, and unconsciously learned a lot.

There were no ICU, ICCU's and fancy hospitals.  Yes, specialists were there, and they came on the request of the family doctor,  in consultation with the immediate family.  There was a certain sense of respect.  Perhaps for the patient, perhaps for the inevitable unfolding of a life stage, and for the immense knowledge and advice of the doctors.  Elders of the family often knew the signs , the breathing, perhaps the last glow of a tired flame, and life, as we knew it, quietly tiptoed around.

It has been my honored lot to assist at  bereavements in my late adult life, a few , in hospitals, when near and dear ones were in ICU's. 

And I have often wondered whether death had now become digital, a war of numbers, finally, unequivocally, asymptotically,  visually, going to zero. Or perhaps , even infinity. 

A sick person, in clinical isolation, intubated, catheterised, wired and masked, struggling through flashing numbers, and beeps.  Periodic visits by impersonal nurses /ayahs and doctors on rounds, and a glimmer of life around through sedated eyes. No family allowed in. Sometimes drastic electrical treatments to revive a sinking, and shocked family sometimes seeing the struggle through small windows.

Some are hard fought victories,  an ode to the brilliant medicine being practiced, and people go on to several more years of  a slightly more disciplined life.   Some are, humble acceptances of the inevitable, after having tried one's best.

But what bothers me in this new protocol, is when patients are kept artificially alive for days together, and decisions for "switching off life" per se,  are left , to the immediate family.  There are counsellors, there is gentle prodding.  and many times, a hitherto quiet spouse, child or parent, shows immense strength of mind and takes a  tough decision.  (While some others, make it their business to ask traumatic questions that trouble the immediate family).

What , strangely,  does not bother me so much, is the possibility of transplanting working anatomy to another needy person, perhaps young, perhaps a child, to give a gift of life, where no hope exists.   

Perhaps, its a sign of age or life stage, that one tries to find a golden mean

There have been deaths , where at home, a quiet shutting down of systems was noticed,  some typical breathing was noted.  A doctor in the house was at the bedside . Family gathering around.  And the lady who spent more than half a century with the patient, mentoring the aforementioned family , accepting it all with stoic grace. Asking her son to sit by, and take his father's head in his lap, as  is the custom.

A quiet respectful passing away. An even more quiet phone call to the eye bank, and the uneventful arrival of its personnel. Ten fifteen minutes behind closed doors, and they leave quietly with gratitude, as the patient lies, as if in sleep, totally unaware of his amazing gift of eyes to someone.  The family converges once again around the just departed, thinking about how life has changed.

There have been situations where one was the sole person watching life ebb away from a close relative with a terminal situation, and one stood holding his hand, watching and trying to decipher moving lips, and  perhaps , involuntary hand movements; perhaps a last brightening of the mind, before the shutdown, and one wondered what must have been going through his mind, while one tried to calm one's troubled mind, trying to wish away what was happening. Then doctors, relatives, and the kicking in of a social system that keeps you from dwelling solely on your loss as you deal with visitors, phone calls, and yes, the eye bank and skin bank people.

Sometimes, it takes a perceptive doctor  to see you through the toughest moments.

A very close relative, a lady , was rushed to our local hospital ,  after what was later diagnosed as a massive heart attack.  The lady was very alert, smiled at the doctor, asked me to get her glasses and shawl from her bag, so she could see what the nurses and doctor were up to. Lots of intravenous stuff being initiated, BP being tracked, and  one suddenly noticed, a closing of eyes, and a twitching of the mouth , happening with much frequency, and pointed it out to the doctor, who immediately stuck fingers in the patients mouth . One noticed a  way to contribute in the proceedings, and immediately freed the doctor by offering to sit with one's fingers in the patient's mouth, while alternative treatments and arrangements were effected.

The patient had actually passed away then, nails turning blue and all, and to this day, I remember the force with which the teeth had clamped down on my fingers.  I slowly climbed down from the big high trolley bed, and went to stand with family that had gathered outside, still coming to terms  with what had happened  in the space of an hour. .

Much after all the formalities were completed, and we brought her home, the doctor came by to visit the next day,  and comforted the family saying, that in the last moments it was as if I had "offered my lap" , so to speak .

There is much to be admired in the advance of medicine and treatment techniques. There is much to be  admired in the capabilities and efficiencies of doctors. 

Somewhere, it occurs to mind, that  it has to be more than numbers. More than a straight line implying the stopping of a heart.

Somewhere, perhaps inexplicably, the departing may sense a family wishing him farewell. Offering a lap, holding a hand, giving a drink of holy water.....

Life is , and has never been  a straight line.  There is no reason that death should be one.   



  1. i feel the first few death experiences usually stays in mind for a long time and feels very personal. Even the children of today (as far as I could see) seems to remember and learn unknowingly. But yes, the hospital experiences have becoming a lot more mechanical ... like most other things

    very though-provoking article

  2. Amazing blog and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!

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