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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Waking Up Alive in a Morgue

Everyone has different fears but one fear that is probably universal is being buried alive. The next closest thing would be finding yourself locked in a morgue refrigerator, wrapped in a plastic body bag…while you are still alive. I first read about a story like this earlier in July 2011, when an 80-year-old man awoke in a morgue refrigerator in South Africa after being sent there due to a presumed death from an asthma attack. Twenty-one hours later, when the man awoke and realized something was wrong, he began screaming and morgue workers thought that the noise was a ghost. The man was rescued after it was realized the voice came from a real person. He was then taken to a hospital and discharged in stable condition. Needless to say, the man was traumatized, had difficulty sleeping, and had nightmares.

Well, now it has happened again…this time to a woman in her 60s in Brazil, who was pronounced dead from pneumonia after suffering two strokes. In this case, the woman’s daughter came to see her mother in the morgue and gave her one final hug. When doing so, she realized her mother was still breathing. The hospital was notified but this was after the poor woman had spent two hours in a plastic bag. The patient was immediately put back on life support. The nurse who first checked her vital signs was fired.

It is reassuring that this has not happened in the United States yet but it may just be a matter of time. My concern is that there may be too casual of an attitude towards death and that the evaluations of these patients were not done as carefully as they should be. In many cases, where people have advanced directives to keep them alive at any circumstances, there would usually be an objective way to test to see if the person was truly dead – an absence of electrical activity of the heart as measured by an electrocardiogram.

However, some people have advanced directives that they should not be resuscitated and so they may not be hooked up to such electrical tests. This often happens in nursing homes, for example. In such cases, a nurse usually checks the pulse and respiration (breathing). This should be double checked by another nurse. In hospitals, a doctor usually does this. It is very hard to imagine, if the nurse or doctor took their time doing this assessment, how a person can be declared dead when they are alive because they would be breathing and have a pulse, even if both were decreased. These issues need to be taken more seriously because what happened in these two cases should never happen anywhere.

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