Deadish: What General Anesthesia Taught Me About Death

Anesthesia, or a temporary state of "nothingness," may be our closest experience of death without dying, and a reminder of the fragility of our lives.

Deadish: What General Anesthesia Taught Me About Death

Near life experience?

Annie Spratt
Héctor Abad Faciolince


BOGOTÁ — Many years ago, nearly 40 actually, I translated a short story by Italo Calvino, titled Learning to be Dead. Its main character, Mr. Palomar, "decides from now on to behave as if he were dead, to see how the world fares without him." He soon realizes it makes no difference: "With or without him, everything carries on as it did before."

This may seem sad or banal, but is in fact a great relief. All problems, for example, are "the problems of others, and their business," and the deceased feels no moral obligation to intervene in anything. Being dead, they have a right to be silent and do nothing. The rest of you can carry on killing each other for politics, as you please. I'm dead, thank you.

Until a few years ago, to determine whether a person was still alive, physicians observed the body, looking for a sign of breathing and checking for a heartbeat. Today, to encourage organ transplants, a person is pronounced dead with the cessation of a certain type of brain activity. So you may be declared alive without a heartbeat or respiration — or dead while still breathing and with a beating heart.

To be dead for a few hours is a strange experience.

Three weeks ago, fully intending to continue being alive, but also with the aim of learning to be dead, I underwent surgery wherein my heart was still, and my lungs were collapsed and airless for several hours. My artificially refrigerated body had the temperature of cold cuts. Some form of brain activity might have been noted in that time though clearly, not of the kind that produces conscience, thought and memory. What I take from that experience, in retrospect, is a feeling of absolute void, without the slightest perception of passing time, of joy, sadness, pleasure or pain.

To be dead for a few hours, without breathing or a beating heart or conscience or memory, is a strange experience (an empty one that is not registered and thus, barely an experience), only made possible by science and technology. This was the most serious, direct learning experience of what death is, as far as I know. It is nothing, total nothing — not even indifference. Just nothing.

During my brief death, I know others continued to live and die. They ate, laughed, cried, argued about politics and religion, worked themselves up over the existence of a soul, sang under the rain, and suffered for lack of money or a pain in their left elbow.

Before sinking into my death experience, I wrote the last chapter of a short novel I have yet to finish, but for which I wanted the ending completed. Its main character is a good priest who stops living while undergoing an open heart surgery. In the story, he does not experience his death, which is simply what his living friends feel when he dies.

When you learn to be dead, you forget how to be alive.

When I came back to life after a few hours, my anesthesiologist friend Juan asked me something, though I have no recollection: "How are you?", to which I reportedly replied: "Alive". Shortly before, the surgeon Camilo had asked me how I felt and my reply, from what he tells me, was the same. Alive.

I think that after learning to be dead, my biggest lesson in coming back to life is about the fragility of the membrane and the tenuous line and thin air that separate life from death.

This has heightened a recurring concern of mine every night at bedtime, "should I awake tomorrow and know that I live," as the poet Jorge Gaitán Durán wrote. I think I can say today that as I feel and think, eat, cry and laugh and write this, that I must be alive. Still, at times, I'm not so sure. When you learn to be dead, you forget how to be alive. Or rather, you learn to live like the poet who wrote, "I have another day; I had time/In my mouth, like wine."

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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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