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Book on Talking to Unresponsive Patients Is Convincing

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Daniel Moynahan is a 57-year-old Brit who awakens with chest pain that subsides on its own as soon as the medics arrive. (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

The medics do what medics do, and as soon as they see Daniel’s 12-lead they get real serious. Chest pain or no chest pain, they transport him to a cath lab. While there, he goes into a persistent v fib. Without realizing what has just happened, he spots a luminous being—a lady—in a corner of the room, up near the ceiling. She’s gorgeous, smiling, with light curly hair, and she’s summoning him to approach her. He’s not a religious believer, but he’s pretty sure she’s an angel. He thinks to himself, “I can’t get there.”

In an instant he’s with her, looking down on his body, trading his pain for an overwhelming sense of peace and comfort. Below him he sees a bald-headed physician and the nurse who had welcomed him to the cath lab. They’re all business, moving briskly and complying with the verbal instructions of one of their machines. (A voice from the machine instructs them to weld him, and they comply at regular intervals.)

If you think that’s a load of horse crap, you should read this book—today. It’s unique, because it’s the first scientific analysis of near-death experiences. (Lead author Sam Parnia, MD, calls those after-death experiences.) Parnia has studied thousands of those accounts, involving people from every culture, every spiritual background (including none) and every corner of the earth. So, we’re not just talking about dreams, here.

Parnia’s new book is called Erasing Death, and it was published on Feb. 26. Public Radio’s popular Fresh Air interviewer, Terry Gross interviewed Parnia in mid-February, and I downloaded the book as soon as it became available. I devoured it overnight, and promptly ordered a hard copy to share with my friends at work.

This book heralds the effectiveness of CPR, especially when coupled with controlled therapeutic hypothermia and post-resuscitation protocols. It proclaims boldly that a great many people are aware of what’s happening throughout their resuscitations. It proposes that those who recover might remember their death experiences if we could minimize the cerebral edema which we know obliterates memory. Most of all, it quiets the gnashing of notions we’ve all experienced between unresponsiveness and unconsciousness. And its author is certainly qualified to command any reader’s attention.

Parnia, MD, PhD, is a critical care physician, assistant professor, and director of resuscitation research at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. He’s a former fellow in pulmonary and critical care medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. He’s a reviewer for the New England Journal of Medicine. He directs the AWARE Study (for AWAreness during REsuscitation), focused on the human mind/brain relationship. And he founded a related international research group at the University of Southampton in London.

If you’ve spent years talking to unresponsive patients when it seemed like the lights were on but nobody was home, this book will convince you to keep right on doing that. If you’ve wondered whether other people’s stories about those bright lights, that euphoria and those comforting, luminous beings are real, this book will convince you not to blow them off. And if you’ve been a little skeptical about the existence of the soul, you should probably read this. It seems those stories are true.

Why would this stuff even matter, to a professional clinician?

Medicine is a pointless pursuit if all it’s about is diagnoses, dosages and data; just as resuscitation encompasses much more than ROSC. Surely you’ve met caregivers who, beyond their clinical expertise, instinctively address the suffering of sick people and assuage the fear of their loved ones. What makes those caregivers special is their talent, Life-Saver. But it’s even more than that.

I think, in order to care for strangers, you need a reverence for them and the ones who love them. It’s one of your most essential tools. Without it, you’re like a carpenter with no saws and no hammers. Maybe you’re born with that reverence and maybe you’re not. Either way, a perspective has to be based on something solid. Faith helps, but we’re all just people. We get tired. And when we do, maybe our faith gets tired, too.

I have to tell you, this book is the most solid thing I’ve read in years. I hope it helps you as much as it has me.

 

Resources
1. Parnia S, Young J: Erasing Death: The science that is rewriting the boundaries between life and death. Harper Collins Publishers: New York, 2013.
 

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