Can life support systems trap the soul? If a person’s heart and lungs are only working because they’re hooked to a life support system, would it keep the soul trapped inside a body that is no longer living on its own? This is one amongst many questions that are posed time and again by people all over the world. The answers too are many and varied, the most common one being: “If a person is conscious I would think yes… If a person is in a deep coma, I don’t think so, but I don’t know that we have the knowledge to know…”
Some years ago, Som Narang’s father suffered a heart attack, was declared dead by one hospital but another hospital put him on life support and kept him on it for twelve days. Was Narang’s father dead or alive? The doctor’s said there was very minimal brain function. The Narangs’ family doctor said there was only one way to know for sure—by disconnecting him from the life support system. If he was still alive, his heart would continue to beat on its own and blood would continue to circulate on its own. If his spirit had left the body, the heart and vital signs would cease functioning, and that’s what happened in Narang’s case. “Mechanical equipment that can keep body tissue alive by pumping blood through the circulation system is not proof a person is alive. Human life may be in the blood, but it is also in the spirit. Medical science cannot duplicate the spirit of mankind. They may be able to keep the body from decomposing by using physical life support systems, but they cannot give the body spiritual life.”
The question also arises whether a coma state, spiritually speaking, is the same state as the one when a person loses brain function? Does the spirit stay within the body or does it temporarily leave until the body resumes consciousness or die if consciousness doesn’t return? I have personal experience here. I have been in a coma and can attest to the fact that coma patients are often still “there”.
Following a road accident, I was in a coma for approximately a month many years ago. In fact, I was pronounced dead and sent to the mortuary where a sweeper who was “tagging” me noticed some movement, informed the doctors but that’s another story. While in a coma, I was aware of people, aware of conversations including those between the senior doctor and interns: “See, she’s responding to some stimuli but whether she’ll ever come out of the coma and if she does, whether she’ll be able to function normally, we don’t know because the brain injuries are severe.” What nitwits, I remember telling myself each time on hearing that, my brain is functioning normally and I may not be able to speak or move right now but I can hear and understand everything that is being said.
My spirit, my soul was obviously still in my body. But is this so in every coma case, especially induced coma cases? In this context, the case of Ariel Sharon, former Prime Minister of Israel, who was induced into a coma and kept on life support for 8 years, is illuminating. The UK Telegraph wrote: “…he was reduced to a permanent vegetative state and kept alive only by a comprehensive system of life support… A hospital manager told the Israeli press that his brain was about the size of a grapefruit”, adding: “The part of the brain that keeps his body functioning—his vital organs—is intact, but beyond that there is nothing, just fluid.” Nonetheless, Mr. Sharon’s son, Gilad wrote that this father would occasionally respond to the presence of his sons.
“He lies in bed, looking like the lord of the manor, sleeping tranquilly. Large, strong, self assured. His cheeks are a healthy shade of red. When he’s awake, he looks out with a penetrating stare,” wrote Gilad. One MRI scan showed unexpected activity within what remained of Mr Sharon’s brain, however, it was only a matter of time before he deteriorated to the point where even life support machines and constant care could not save him…” Had his soul left for the higher realms while his body was kept alive on earth? There are also so many stories of comatose persons coming back to reality after years of remaining in a coma. However, being totally brain dead is a different thing entirely. In brain dead cases, the spirit or soul is usually out of the body, though often the brain dead person’s spirit stays with the body until life support is switched off.
Bianca Nogrady, writing for ABC Health and Wellbeing has pointed out that “despite our advances in medical technology and knowledge, death has never been harder to define and diagnose. The definition and diagnosis of death varies between countries, states, and sometimes even different hospitals and doctors view death differently… experts still struggle to pinpoint the exact moment at which we die.” Defining death would be easy if there was a single, universal moment that delineates the point of transition between life and death, says intensive care specialist from Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital Dr Ray Raper. “If you look at the domains of the transition between life and death, they’re spiritual, functional, structural and they’re biological, and the most important are the functional ones.”
Nogrady writes that today, brain death in Australia, the US and many other countries, is defined as cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. In the United Kingdom, brain death is defined as death of the brain stem only.
With so many grey areas and conflict points, often, for the families of people on extended life support, there is a heart breaking decision to be made: whether to switch off the life supports and risk incapacitation, or take that risk and give a loved one a chance at life. The general consensus amongst care-givers at the time of death seems to be that “if you’re going to recover, even if they do turn the machines off, you’re going to survive.”
As Raper says, “ ‘life’ may be a nebulous concept, but we know when it is gone.”
“Even if you’re not terribly religious, there’s this sense of the spirit leaving the body, and when the spirit leaves the body, that’s the real time of death,”he says. “But we can’t identify that, we can’t see that, we can’t measure it, so until we get a ‘spiritometer’, that’s a good concept, but it’s not very practical.”