The Bus (fish hearts, locked-in state, & severed heads)

Some days when I ride the bus, I never want to get off.  Perpetually in thought while endlessly in transport, I watch the city go by.

Today was like this.

First, I thought about wanting to hold the cut-out, still-beating heart of a fish in my hand one day.  There are fish markets that will do this – cut out a fish’s heart and place it in the palm of a visitor’s hand.  I think it would be lovely to see the teeny tiny organ pumping without purpose, separate from its being.

Next, I thought about Erik Ramsey.  Erik was 16-years old in 1999 when he got in a terrible car accident.  Following the accident, a blood clot formed in the part of Erik’s brain stem called the pons, causing a stroke where the boy’s body met his mind.  As a result, Erik suffers from a permanent condition known as locked-in state.  He has no control over any of his muscles; he cannot move, he cannot speak.

In 1995, Jean-Dominique Bauby experienced a similar situation.  At 43-years old Bauby suffered a stroke and lapsed into a coma.  When he awoke 20 days later, he was mentally aware of his surroundings but physically paralyzed with the exception of some movement in his head and eyes.  Bauby wrote his memoirs, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by blinking his left eyelid in the presence of a transcriber.  (His right eye had been sewn shut because of moisture-related issues.)  The transcriber repeatedly recited the alphabet until Bauby blinked to choose the next letter.

However, Erik Ramsey does not have the luxury of blinking.  The only muscles that Erik was left in command of were the ones that control the up and down movements of his eyes.  “Up for yes, down for no,”  his therapist told him.

Currently, Erik has bundles of hair-thin wires protruding from the back of his head.  The wires have been implanted by doctors that Erik is working with to become the first person to ever have his thoughts translated directly into speech.

Still, Erik is lucky that he isn’t Julia Tavalaro.  Per an article published in Esquire magazine in 2008,

There are stories of people being locked-in for years before anyone notices the fully conscious person hiding inside the paralyzed body. In 1966, a thirty-two-year-old woman named Julia Tavalaro became locked-in after a brain hemorrhage and was sent to Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island, New York, where the staff took to calling her “the vegetable.” It wasn’t until six years later that a family member noticed Tavalaro trying to smile after she heard a dirty joke. She was immediately taught to communicate with eye blinks and became a poet and author. She died in 2003 at the age of sixty-eight, having never spoken for thirty-seven years.

Then, my mind wandered to French physician Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux’s investigations concerning the life span and consciousness of the human head immediately after it is severed from the body.  On June 28, 1905, Dr. Beaurieux experimented with the head of condemned prisoner Henri Languille.  The doctor’s observations began the instant after the guillotine blade dropped.  Below is his report.

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck…

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me.

After several seconds, the eyelids closed again, slowly and evenly, and the head took on the same appearance as it had had before I called out.

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. The there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.

I have just recounted to you with rigorous exactness what I was able to observe. The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.

Whether it’s possible for someone to remain conscious after being beheaded is debatable.  Most modern physicians believe that reactions like those noted by Dr. Beaurieux are actually reflexive twitching of muscles, rather than conscious, deliberate movement.

Nearing my destination, I thought about falling asleep and waking up with amnesia.  Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, to forget everything.  It would be like renewed innocence.

Also, I thought about romance in relation to a card house or Wataru Ito’s origami city, but I thought it best to leave that to a later entry.  (My musing did not reach a conclusion on this journey.  It was still just a seed.)

At 23rd Street and Third Avenue, I disembarked to take my first final of the semester.  On my way into Baruch’s vertical campus, I stopped for a pumpernickel bagel.  I was thinking that my life is a mess, and I love it.

When I have the month off in January, maybe I’ll ride the bus without reason.  And I’ll stay on forever.

2 Responses to “The Bus (fish hearts, locked-in state, & severed heads)”

  1. Icy Roads & Crowded Metros | Bucharest Expat Says:

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  2. Digging, Struggling, Sinking (Relax & Float) | Keep My Words Says:

    [...] 1997, Everette Hodgins, 14, and his friend Justice Carr, 15, were walking to a fishing pond in Braidwood, Illinois, when they encountered something they’d only seen in movies – [...]

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