The Feeling of Dying on We Heart It



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8 Death By Snake Venom Karl Patterson Schmidt

In 1957, snake expert Karl Patterson Schmidt was trying to identify a snake when he was bitten. Over the next 24 hours, he documented everything that he experienced as the venom took his life.

“4:30–5:30 PM,” he wrote when he got home. “Strong nausea but without vomiting during trip to Homewood on suburban train.”

An hour later, he added, “Strong chill and shaking, followed by fever of [38.7 degrees Celsius (101.7 °F)], which did not persist (blankets and heating pad). Bleeding of mucous membranes in the mouth began at about 5:30, apparently mostly from gums.”

He managed to get a couple hours of sleep but woke up at midnight. “Urination at 12:20 AM,” he noted. “Mostly blood but small in amount.” He woke up again a short time later in a violent fit of vomiting.

His last entry came at 6:30 AM. “Slight bleeding is now going on in the bowels, with frequent irritation at the anus,” he wrote. “Mouth and nose continuing to bleed, not excessively.” By lunchtime, he’d called his wife in a panic. When the doctors found him, he was in a sweat, unable to answer anything they asked. He was pronounced dead at 3:00 PM.

Your emotions and mood

It’s not surprising that the prospect of dying or facing death will have an effect on the way you feel and on your mood. The process of dying marks the end of a journey: your life on this earth. That inevitably involves sadness, grief, and a sense of loss.

Research into grief has shown that people’s reactions to loss may not just be in feelings that come and go but can even be felt in every fibre of their being.

Some surprising research

One of the surprising discoveries of research into the process of dying is that many people who are in the last weeks and months of their lives feel emotionally comfortable.

In other words, it is entirely possible to feel contented and to enjoy life, right up to the very end. Of course, getting to that place is by no means straightforward, nor is it something that everyone is able to do.

Air Hunger

“You villain touch! What are you doing? My breath is tight in its throat” (Walt Whitman)

The patient was a wiry woman in her 80s who had smoked for seven decades. Cigarettes turned her lungs from a spongelike texture to billowing plastic bags that collapsed on themselves when she exhaled. It was like trying to scrunch all the air out of a shopping bag. Air got trapped.

Air hunger — the uncomfortable feeling of breathing difficulty — is one of the most common end-of-life symptoms that doctors work to ease.

The treatment? Opiates, usually morphine.

People sometimes ask why the treatment for painful breathing is a medication that can depress breathing. You’d guess that opiates would worsen air hunger.

The answer hinges on defining why air hunger is uncomfortable in the first place.

Some researchers think the discomfort of air hunger is from the mismatch between the breathing our brain wants and our lungs’ ability to inflate and deflate. Opiates provide relief because they tune our brain’s appetite for air to what our body can provide. They take the “hunger” out of “air hunger.”

Others believe that the amount of morphine needed to relieve air hunger may have little effect on our ability to breathe. Since air hunger and pain activate similar parts of the brain, opiates may simply work by muting the brain’s pain signals.

2 Death From Cancer Cris Gutierrez

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Cris Gutierrez kept a blog while she battled pancreatic cancer. When it was clear that she wouldn’t survive, she wrote one final entry, trying to describe what it felt like to be dying. She wrote, “You don’t want to die like this.”

“I’ve had a lung collapse twice. I’ve had edema that makes me look like a painting by Botero. Edema hurts to walk on. You can barely bend your knees to go down stairs. It can cause tissue breakdown and sepsis. I’ve had days when I’ve woken thinking that I was drowning because I had a throatful of bile and a burned stomach.”

She still felt angry. “I admit to some frustration,” she wrote. “I planned a real estate investment business, low end but with vision. I will never do this.”

Her biggest worry, though, was for her family and the people who cared about her. “I just want to die in not too much pain, surrounded by the ones I love,” she said. “The ones who must live with this agony are the ones who love me.”