Erasing Death by Sam Parnia, MD


Death is a fascinating topic, and one Dr. Sam Parnia takes very seriously. His book, Erasing Death, opens with a very hopeful narrative describing how patients who are clinically dead are in fact brought back to life. He says all those people who perished on the Titanic 100 years ago would have been excellent candidates for resuscitation under modern medical techniques, which include the cooling of the body to preserve brain function.

But Parnia, a resuscitation medicine specialist, says medical science is in the infancy of standardizing treatments for people who suffer a reversible death. One's chances will depend on what hospital he is taken to, what physicians happen to be practicing that day, their level of training, what equipment might be at their disposal, etc. Astoundingly, people who have been clinically dead for hours can be brought back to life with minimal or no brain damage if the medical issue that caused their death (a clot, for instance) can be repaired in time and their bodies were properly cooled in the meantime.

While Parnia's book spends a lot of time discussing how this can be achieved and the tremendous potential for reviving stricken patients, he also delves into an area that can only be described as the spiritual or supernatural. And that is the other side of this topic. There is a growing population of people who were once "dead" who are able to describe what that death experience was like. He tells of patients who are clinically dead, meaning they have no pulse, their hearts have stopped and their pupils become dilated because there is no longer blood circulation. So how can they possibly describe anything after they are revived?

Before we get to that, Parnia describes circumstances where patients can recount what was said in the OR and by whom while they were dead. Uncannily, many tell a similar story of floating above their bodies while medical personnel work on them. This has occurred across cultures, ages, religious beliefs and even among atheists. The case I found particularly amazing is that of a young boy who was dead and later told of a kindly woman who helped him while he was dead. When asked who this was, he had no idea. His mother then showed him a picture of his deceased grandmother that he apparently had never met and he said that was the lady!

Others in this unique fraternity of survivors have also described deceased relatives at their side or the presence of heavenly being. Parnia has no explanation for this from a scientific standpoint so he has begun a study involving the experiences of people who have been dead. He says only 10% or so of those who've been brought back have any memory of the experience. But among those who do, their recollections are incredibly similar.

This book makes a strong case for the self or the soul continuing on after death, which is exactly what happens to brain cells. That is not science fiction. When we die, our bodies don't completely die immediately. The brain cells linger on for a while, especially when the body is cooled, even though the heart has stopped. What happens in this interim period is what makes for great dinner conversation.

Posted on October 29, 2013 .