Tuesday, August 7, 2012

My near-death experience

Today, on my 53rd birthday, 7 August 2012, it is five years to the day that I woke up from a week-long coma, with someone else's heart. On the 31st July 2007, Prof. Rodrigus performed transplant surgery on me, and I remain grateful to her and to all the medics and paramedics at UZA (university hospital Antwerp) for giving me a new lease of life. For most of human history, I should be dead, but clearly somebody up there didn't want me to come just yet. The time is right to speak of an experience I had while technically unconscious.

Before the surgery, visitors had been telling me excited stories about people floating to the ceiling while operated upon and faithfully reporting afterwards about what the doctors were saying and doing during the operation. And about the "near-death experience" of patients who had seen their deceased loved ones in the great beyond, or the beckoning presence of a light or a messiah's face at the other end of a tunnel. Afterwards these patients would live happily and without any fear of death because the experience was so uplifting.

I was skeptical of their stories. A lack of oxygen in the brain (or some similar chemical circumstance) could explain the hallucination of a tunnel, the exact face people see at the end of the tunnel turns out to be culturally determined, and going through an aptly called "near-death experience" affects only people who are still alive, hence just as ignorant about death as the rest of us. And indeed the experience of floating to the ceiling, of seeing deceased family members or of sensing the presence of a messiah didn't happen to me. Instead, something else occurred, either during surgery or during the artificial coma.

Another line of stories, specific to heart transplantations, was that the patient would get the individual memory of the donor. He would remember things that hadn't happened to him but to someone else, viz. the former owner of the organ being transplanted. The heart would be especially sensitive, being rich in symbolism and allegedly even being part of the consciousness apparatus along with the brain. The was even an account of a murder that got solved because the receiver of the victim's heart had a dream in which he saw the whole murder scene and afterwards identified the murderer. And at the least, receivers would get a change of personality under the impact of the donor. As I expected, the doctors said they were presented with these beliefs and these stories at every operation, but they had never seen these phenomena with their own eyes. To my knowledge, they didn't happen to me either.

What happened instead was that, sometime during the coma, either during or after the operation, I became conscious, though the thought of opening my eyes was far from me. This was long before I really woke up from the coma, a long and unpleasant process of mixing real perceptions with hallucinations, so that first my mind and then my room seemed filled with all manner of animals; a bad dream that overwhelmed me at the time but then turned out to be easy to discard and to forget, leaving only awareness of the room and of the smaller medical problems I had yet to face. No, this was a distinctly clear mental perception.

At first I saw very vivid colours. That wasn't me, a Northern European with misty blue-grey eyes, I would be more for hazy colours, right? Maybe this said something about the donor, a painter or simply a Mediterranean? Then everything became black, pitch-black, black like I had never seen. Was this perhaps what being dead was like? Maybe the operation had failed and I had died, right? After all, I didn't know about life after death, there were varying opinions about it, and I remembered a believers' joke about the atheist who died and found to his dismay that he had an eternal soul surviving death. I didn't think of checking empirically whether my body was still there, I only realized that my mind was working, frantically philosophizing away.

And then I realized it. I didn't know if I was dead or alive, but my mind was at any rate still alive. It was seeing and thinking things, therefore it was in existence. Cogito ergo sum! Suddenly the old line from Descartes became existentially meaningful: I was conscious, therefore I was.... well, not necessarily alive in the physical sense, but I was there in some sense of the word. Either I was still alive and in my body, or I was not but then the individual consciousness survived death. At any rate, I was still there. Happy at being reassured about this, I fell into the coma again.


Mahalaya said...

I agree with Beloved's wisdom, of course, in the fact He wanted you here to provide this very important work you do. It is vital.

Also, thank you for sharing your experience. Such things provide those ladder rungs of our beliefs in what may be out there. Very special and specific to each of us, individually.

Happy Birthday Beloved.<3

Dhruva said...

Shocked to hear that ! thank god everything's fine at least now. May you live for a long time! :)happy b'day :-)

Apuleius Platonicus said...

If at all possible you should really write more about this fascinating "Cartesian Near Death Experience"!!

Unknown said...

May you live long. Happy birthday.

Naras said...

Unknown, Dhruva, Mahalaya

You have said it well. My sentiments are the same.

Ramanathan said...

Incredible, thks for sharing...May God bless you with a long healthy life..suryanarayanan, paris

Karthik rajan said...

Very chilling narration. I didn’t believe the stories that were floated in the web about your ill health some time back. We Indians have to thank the gods for sparing you, or probably the gods wanted to be spared !! People In your part of the world live upto 80 , you should hit that mark too, 50s is too early. I wonder who would rejoice at the news of your death, would it be the entire Christian and Islamic world ? , I don’t know. At this juncture I am reminded of this interesting dialogue in the Hollywood film “Charlie’s angels” uttered by the villain character: In death All your questions will be answered. That makes death the most wonderful experience which nobody can share with anybody !
Belated Happy Re-birth day, and may all the almighties bless u with a long peaceful life.
--Karthikrajan, Chennai, India

Bhuvan said...

I am sure I echo the feelings of thousands of your well wishers in India - may you have a long, healthy, and fruitful life. Please take care of your health!

joomladev said...

Sir with all due respect, I am not questioning your stand or belief, the following is my observation only from my point of view.

If our mind survives after the death of our physical body, then how can we call it as a death of ours, because something survives of 'ours'.

Death means an end to all ( at least in the subject's point of view), But I think mind is a byproduct of the body, so It won't survive after the death of my physical body. So like you said some where in your article, its is just a 'hallucination'. This is my Point of view only.

In case if we accept the argument that mind survives after the death of our physical body, it will always been there before our physical body even came into existence. If Mind is free from physical body, then it lives forever. Its a contradiction because why in the first place such an independent being(mind) chooses to stay inside a limited thing called body or think it was a body.

This questions haunts me for a very long time. I am sure that I won't find an answer because this question was raised by the mind which is the by product of my body. I think that very question surviving by mind after the death of physical body is an age old myth.

white pawn said...

May God bless you :)
Jai Ho!