An old friend of mine recently lost her father to liver disease. He was on life support in his final weeks, and had it removed at a scheduled time. It was my friend?s first experience with seeing someone removed from life support. If you?ve never had to go through this, consider yourself lucky. In case you were wondering what it?s like, or want to be prepared if you have to go through it yourself one day, here is what it?s like for the loved ones who?ve gathered to say goodbye to the patient:
Twice in my life I?ve been in the room when someone was taken off of life support and allowed to pass away. Depending upon your personal beliefs, what I witnessed could be described as either horrific or joyful? but not too peaceful.
If you?ve never seen someone in a coma transition from life to death, here?s what happens:
- The doctors ask the family to leave the room briefly, while they turn off the alarms on the machines and remove the patient?s breathing tube. Removing the tube causes a gargling sound and can trigger some reflexes in the patient that may make it look like they?re coming out of the coma. They are not.
- Once the life support has been turned off/removed, the doctors leave the room and invite the family back in. A nurse may remain with the patient to provide painkillers (morphine) if it looks like the patient is experiencing any pain.
- Depending upon how long the patient lives after that, they may begin to turn blue before they?ve actually passed away. The first person I saw go through this lasted a few hours post-removal, but his blood oxygen levels were in the 20% range at the end, and he was turning blue while still alive.
- Near the very end of life, the patient?s body may go through convulsions. Some of these may seem violent and include arching of the back and tremors in the arms and legs. This is the brain sending out signals to the body that it?s running out of oxygen, and the body should move out of whatever position it?s in that?s stopping the oxygen. At least, that?s what the doctor told me the first time I witnessed this happen. This is very painful to watch. When asked if it was a peaceful transition by a loved one who couldn?t stand to be in the room while their loved one made the transition, I said yes, leaving this part of the transition out. To this day, they don?t know about this.
- After the patient has passed away, a doctor will come in to confirm that there is no heartbeat. Then the family is told to take all of the time they need to say goodbye. But?
- If it hasn?t started already, the body will begin to turn blue fairly quickly, beginning with the lips. This is also painful to watch.
- Once the family is done, they leave, and the nurses come in to remove the body. Here, they put a curtain around the bed and wheel the whole thing out to the morgue. If you didn?t know it was a body, you?d probably think it was a meal cart.
- Someone from the family? it was me both times I went through this? goes back into the room once the body has been removed to gather any belongings.
Since I believe in an eternal afterlife, I found an element of joy mixed in with the horror in both of the transitions I witnessed. Horror at the physical aspects of it, but joy that someone I loved who was in a lot of pain would no longer be in pain, and I?d get to be with them again one day in a pain-free place.