Canadian science writer Anna Gosline considers in the latest issue of The New Scientist, which includes a special section on death.
- Drowning. After panic, water inhalation and laryngospasm, "a feeling of calmness and tranquility" sets in, according to reports from survivors.
- Heart attack. At the outset, it feels like an elephant sitting on one's chest. A heart attack can lead to a long, slow death.
- Blood loss. Exsanguination, in medical terminology. Death could come nearly instantly if the aorta is cut, but if the damage is in a smaller vein the patient would gradually go into haemorrhagic shock. Depending on the speed of blood loss, one might feel calm... or terrified.
- Fire. Most deaths by fire aren't actually caused by burning, reports Ms Gosline. "The most common cause of death is inhaling toxic gases - carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and even hydrogen cyanide - together with the suffocating lack of oxygen."
- Decapitation. Perhaps the optimal way to go. Seven seconds and it's all over.
- Electrocution. In most cases, electrocution deaths are a result of arrhythmia, which cuts off oxygen supply to the brain in seconds. In rare cases, some experts say, electrocution could paralyze the breathing muscles or fry the brain, either of which could make death take much longer.
- Falling from a height. A big fall causes just about every kind of organ failure you can think of. Messy, yes -- but another fast way to expire.
- Hanging. Two methods exist: the short drop and the long drop. A short drop causes strangulation; a long one, spinal trauma ("the classic 'hangman's fracture' between the second and third cervical vertebrae") or, in some cases, decapitation.
- Lethal injection. Three drugs are used in most lethal injections: the anaesthetic thiopental, then the paralytic pancuronium, then potassium chloride is used to stop the heart pumping. The thiopental is supposed to eliminate any pain, but a current case in front of the US Supreme Court claims it is often used in insufficient dosages and patients die of painful burning caused by the potassium chloride.
- Explosive decompression. There's not much data to study for this one: only a few incidents have ever occurred. In 1971, Russia's Soyuz-11 developed a leak during re-entry and all three passengers died of asphyxiation. In another case, a NASA researcher depressurized his flight suit in a vacuum chamber by mistake before being rescued. Animal experiments have found that unconsciousness comes within 10-15 seconds, but repressurizing the subjects within 90 seconds generally saves them. After that, as the body swells due to the pressure difference between one's body and the vacuum, water vapour bubbles form in the blood and blood flow ceases.
NOTE FROM THE EDITORS
Any readers considering suicide are urged to call 911 or a suicide prevention hotline to get help. In Canada, a listing of suicide prevention hotlines is . In the United States, you can call 1-800-SUICIDE.
(Why is this note here? Read for details.)
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