If you’ve ever wondered if the last words we whisper to a loved one who’s unconscious and dying, this study should give us some comfort.
Citing an article in The Times (which is behind a paywall), Georgia Simcox reports for The Daily Mail, July 11, 2020, that a study by a team at the University of British Columbia has found that even while unconscious and close to death, a person can hear what is being said to them.
The study’s lead author Elizabeth Blundon said, “This should just give a lot of comfort to people who maybe have had this experience of being close to someone at the bedside or on the phone and having those parting words.”
The study, the first of its kind, focused on patients transitioning from life to death, when the body begins to shut down, rather than people in a coma.
Researchers measured electrical activity in the patients’s brain with a hat containing 64 electrodes. They identified brain signals generated in response to complex tonal changes by playing a series of tone patterns to a young and healthy control group before replicating the test on a small number of hospice patients.
The researchers found the brain signals when the patient was unresponsive were very similar to the signals when the patient was responsive (not dying), as well as to the signals found in the control group, which suggests that the dying patient can still hear.
What is not known is whether the patient can understand what they’re hearing. But the case of Jenny Bone would indicate unconscious patients understand the words they hear.
Bone fell into a coma after being stricken with Guillain-Barre Syndrome in 2015. While she lay in a medically-induced coma, she heard a doctor asking her husband about switching off her life-support. She said: “I was aware of conversations around me. The most frequent one was being turned in the bed. A familiar ‘ready, steady, turn’ would come from the nurses. The most alarming was between a doctor and my husband enquiring as to my wishes surrounding being kept alive on a ventilator and that they were unsure whether my mental ability had been impaired due to lack of oxygen while they were attempting to restart my heart.”
That dying patients can hear what is said could explain stories of patients “waiting” for their loved ones to arrive at their bedside before dying, as in the case of Hilary Jordan and her husband Ian, a police officer in Victoria, British Columbia.
Ian suffered a head injuruy in a crash and was comatose for almost 31 years. During all those years, Hilary would talk to Ian. She told the Canadian Press news agency that she said something to let him know it was OK if he left them. She had never said it before and shortly afterwards he passed away.