Saturday, November 11, 2006

Defining the Words

As I work on a story and look into the possibility of cryonics, one of the questions that comes up is just what is death and when is a person dead?

Centuries ago you were dead when you stopped breathing, then we learned about artificial resuscitation.

Then you were dead when your heart stoped, until we learned about CPR and appropriate use of electric discharge to restart the heart.

Now you're dead if your brain ceases to function, but how close are we to a device that can jumpstart a brain?

First off, we need to tread carefully in areas such as cryonics and the book I am trying to write centers on one such experimental revival gone badly wrong (I guess it's a variation on the Frankenstein motif.) I do not wish to say don't do it, but I do want to see a yellow flashing light as we do the research; I am raising a caution flag not an all-stop flag.

I think in order to define death we need to define life. Life is like love in that the English language uses one word to designate some very different things. The Greeks had at least four different words for Love including Storge (an affection born of familiarity and comfort, the most impersonal of the loves), Philos (more appropriately translated "liking" or "friendship"), Eros (romantic or sexual love) and Agape ( Spiritual love which is described in I Corinthians 13)

The Greeks also had at least two words for life. The first word is bios which describes what is basically a very complex and ongoing chemical reaction that operates in every living thing. The second is zoe which is harder to define but involves thought processes and awareness and is generally limited to higher animals. There is also a third life described in the New Testament which is given by the Holy Spirit and is eternal.

The Greeks also had two words for death. Necros which describes the end of mere biological function and thanatos which is a total death. (The New Testament also describes the "second death" which is final consequence of sin and is far greater than either of the other two.) We have already pushed into the realm of Necros death whenever we revive someone whose heart has stopped but thanatos death is another matter. It occurs when (from a theological viewpoint) the body and soul completely seperate or (from a materialist viewpoint) when the information stored in the brain randomizes. Once that occurs even a cryonic revival cannot save a person.

My biggest concern is we don't know where to draw the line. I would have no problem with a device that could "jumpstart" a brain within seconds of it stopping but when a person has been biologically dead for a while, I am not quite so sure.

Early in my writing, some of the researchers believe they may have unwittingly already revived a dead person (but his body was still marginally functional when he was frozen and the debate was about if he was alive while he was frozen):

Ernie couldn't believe that the most "outside the box" group on the planet could not see the obvious.

"His brain was not functioning people! He was dead, dead, DEAD!"

Various protests broke out but Ernie continued unabated.

"By every definition he was dead while he was frozen. His heart was not beating. He was not breathing. His brain was non-functional! I challenge one person to give me one reason to say he was alive at that point in time!"

Dr McCain responded, "He walked out of here. That means he was alive."

Ernie smiled at her and said, "Jenny, remember, we had to restart his brain."

"That is true, Jenny" I added, "If anyone had asked, not knowing what we were doing, would they have come to the conclusion that Johnny Larson was alive? What evidence would there have been?"

She was not yet convinced.

"In my heart, I believe that when one dies, one does not come back without a push by God Himself. If he walked out of here on his own two feet, which he did, then he was never truly dead. If he was indeed dead, he would have stayed that way. I don't know where the distinction lies, and being a mathmetician, that is a hard thing to say, but in my heart, I know there is a difference."

One can also remember the difference between "mostly dead" and "all dead" in The Princess Bride (One is still slightly alive and you can help them, the other all you can do is go through their pockets and look for loose change.)

This is a key. We do not know the point at which thanatos death takes place. Once it happens the patient is not coming back until God says so. That is why we need to proceed with caution.


Blogger Crazy Politico said...

I hadn't thought of it much, but you are right, we've blurred the line on what is "dead".

8:51 AM  
Blogger The Oneonta Teletype said...

It comes down to pulse and brainwaves. No heartbeat-no brain waves --it's flatline.
You can have a pulse, but no brainwave, then you're 'braindead' but not the other way around.

Re: When life begins: Prominent ethicists, MD's and researchers almost universally agree that life begins when the dna from the egg combines with the DNA from the sperm.

10:50 AM  
Blogger shoprat said...

oneonta that is clearly the point of Necros but where is the point of thanatos and how do we tell?

12:09 PM  
Blogger Gayle said...

Beats me, Shoprat! This stuff only confuses my poor brain. I've always just thought "dead" is "dead", period! If you don't move, don't breath, don't eat and are cold to the touch, you are dead. I know...I'm simplifying things, but the truth is that I know nothing about cryogenics. I do believe there is a point though, where we will work at playing God a little too hard and mess up big time. Another simplification, but I still think it's true.

2:37 PM  
Blogger armed_and_christian said...

Muscle tissue can live for a couple hours w/o oxygenation (i.e. some form of circulation) before it becomes useless and begins to necrotize. Heart tissue, more sensitive, begins to die irrevocably within only a couple minutes. Brain tissue can last only mere seconds without oxygenation before it necrotizes. It is also very delicate tissue, so it is prone to all manner of injury.

I don't follow cryonics, but I do know that it must address these very serious concerns: 1) brain tissue would be very likely to become severely and irrevocably damaged through lack of oxygenation between the time circulation stopped and when the cryogenic process is completed, and 2) brain tissue would likely succumb to something akin to "freezer burn" with such a process.

While I can think of an enormous list of people I'd like to see frozen, I cannot think of a single one who should be thawed back out.

Just my .02

2:59 PM  
Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

Boy that was a good read. When I worked in hospitals, I began to get the creeps about organ transplants because I found out that many organs are harvested when the donor is still breathing and their heart still beating but have been declared brain dead. They are being "kept alive" by machines but it still bothers me.

3:26 PM  
Blogger shoprat said...

cp a little knowledge blurs a lot of things, like the definition of a planet.

gayle unfortunately there are degrees of death. As our knowledge expands we learn that.

A&C You have given a major point that I intend to make.

pjc I think it would bother me to be given such a heart.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

I see beating hearts open on the table regularly. I have not seen anyone "die" during a case. I have seen dead people in the Coast Guard. I can tell you that you will undoubtedly know a dead person when you see one. Especially if their eyes are still open.
I think Terri Shiavo was dead. Her body was alive, but her brain was dead. Time to let go of the shell...

8:23 AM  
Blogger cryoguy said...

Anyone who wants to understand the difference between life and death and how it relates to cryonics should read

In a nutshell, whenever medicine succeeds in reviving someone (medicine revives people without brain function all the time), it's wrong to say they were ever dead in the first place. "Dead" is not when things stop working. Dead is when cells and chemicals inside the brain and body get so messed up that they can't be fixed anymore. That takes a surprisingly long time.

The idea that there is some subclass of clinically dead people that should not be revived for superstitious reasons is grossly unethical. If people can be resuscitated, and they want to be resuscitated, they should be resuscitated! THE DIVIDING LINE BETWEEN LIFE AND DEATH IS WHETHER RESUSCITATION IS POSSIBLE. Dead people cannot be revived by definition.

4:14 PM  

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