Friday, January 18, 2013

Death Is Taxing

Dr Mrs Wombat directs me to Eben Alexander, MD, a neurosurgeon, who had a near-death experience while suffering from E. coli meningitis, and writes about it in his book, 'Proof of Heaven'.  The Brigham was the place where Harvey Cushing MD, perhaps America's most distinguished and influential neurosurgeon, practiced; there's no more historically significant venue for the craft in this country.  Unsurprisingly, his colleagues, and most who reject the supernatural, dismiss his story as a product of physiological phenomena rather than evidence of an afterlife, while those already convinced are bolstered in their beliefs.  Here's a cite to the book on Amazon, with multiple reviews worth a look as well:

Dr Alexander now runs a web site,, which I'll admit pushes my BS meter off zero, though that's probably prejudice on my part.  I should say I'm a gentle agnostic, who accepts decency from liberal religion and the possibility of the supernatural without requiring it to explain the universe as I see it.  And a neurosurgeon isn't likely to be warm, fuzzy and woo-promoting.

I'm left with, yet again, the notion that death is a very difficult thing to face.  Kubler-Ross's dream of a good death, surrounded by loved ones, stages gone through and an amicable separation from the lost object of life, seems to me after my decades practicing surgery to be an a priori aspiration rarely if ever followed through in the actual event, when people tend not to go gentle into that good night.  And people think of death a particular way--religious, political, personal, mythic, tribal, all of the above, trying to deal with the impossibility of knowing death, with its finality, its sometimes cruelty, its appalling contingency.  And a challenge to someone's take on death is likely to be rejected as threatening, rather than embraced as an enlargement of possibility.

Me, now, in my sixties, I don't fear death at all, not nearly as much as living too long.  But that's in the abstract.  I happen to have a narrow heart valve, which I'm told will require replacement sometime in the next 5-10 years.  They'd put me to sleep, stop my heart, open things up and replace my narrow valve with a mechanism, or a valve taken from a biological source like a pig.  Then they'd (mostly) restart my heart, sew me up and I'd be fine.  Mortality from the operation is around 1-3%.  The day before they operate, if it indeed comes to that, ask me again...


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