Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Recognition of Death

Bert Klaxon and I were sent recently to one of those tiny railway cottages for an elderly male, suspended, query purple; that being medical slang for 'it's a dead 'un, lads, there's no rush'. We finished our breakfast and took a leisurely drive over, stopping en route, as I recall, to buy some flowers for Bert's dear old mum, who was in St. Bernard's being fitted with a new hip.

As we pulled up outside the cottages, we were greeted by the new widow, who wailed unanswerable questions concerning the motivation of the Almighty and directed us with a bony finger to the upstairs front bedroom where we discovered her late husband stone cold in bed, his rheumy eyes and toothless mouth wide open in a singularly unattractive fashion.

Now an ambulanceman can usually spot a corpse without getting too close, but we do like to be sure as mistakes can result in no end of ribbing in the messroom. There was a case in the newspapers not so long ago of a certified corpse being found alive in a hospital mortuary refrigerator. Imagine the stick the doctor who signed that certificate must have got from his mates down the pub that night. In the ambulance game, however, we have our own foolproof methods for determining with absolute certainty the life status of a body.

In all but exceptional cases, we use a simple device called the Pierrepoint Hood, which is actually little more than a thick black rubber bag that is placed over the entire head and then sealed tightly at the neck by means of a leather drawstring. After fifteen minutes, the mask is removed and life can be pronounced extinct with complete confidence. Sometimes one may detect slight movement from the body, even speech; indeed, some quite spirited resistance has been encountered on occasion, but as long as one holds one's nerve and abides by the fifteen minute rule, one cannot go wrong. We then put the kettle on and send a young urchin to fetch the doctor for the purpose of official certification.

On this particular occasion, it was our old friend Dr. Medson who turned up an hour or so later, wearing his customary top hat and cape and carrying an old-fashioned black leather bag. We gave him the necessary details and he got straight down to the business of pronouncing death.

"Now then, Mr. O'Coughin," he addressed the deceased. "I'm going to ask you a question three times and I want you to consider your answers very carefully." It's always a pleasure to watch Doc Medson certify; he's a performer of the old school and thrives on an appreciative audience.

"Tell me something now, Mr O’Coughin,” he continued conversationally. “Are you alive?" The doctor inhaled deeply, threw back his head, and paused to great effect as he turned with a dramatic flourish from the corpse, which offered no response.

"I'll ask you once again, Mr. O'Coughin. Are you or are you not alive?" He gazed through the grimy window for a full minute, down at his motor car, shiny and incongruous in the mean little street where some barefooted children were kicking around a bundle of rags, or possibly a cat. Then, with a great theatrical sigh, as if suddenly he'd grown weary of the whole wretched business, he turned back to face the bed, removing the cap from his fountain pen, a pad already in his hand.

"For the third and final time, Mr. O'Coughin. Are you alive?"