There is much debate in scientific and theological circles regarding the exact point in time that a collection of cells can be considered living, as well the exact point that the same collection of cells can be considered dead.
The moment of death has historically been a fluid concept. Indeed, there are many examples of those whose hearts have stopped beating or been declared brain dead being bought ‘back to life’ thanks to advances in modern medicine. As I write this, it is commonly accepted in the medical community that true death occurs the moment there is no chance of such a resurrection.
But what of the spirit, that intangible and unique life force that makes us who we are? Is it possible that this part of us can live on after this ‘true death’?
In my experience, the best place to begin searching for answers is in the testimonies of those who work at the boundary between life and death; the medical profession and the emergency services.
Karen Sawyer is one such individual. Short, slight, and with a disarming smile, she currently works as a baker specialising in bespoke wedding cakes.
However, fifteen years ago, she was employed in an altogether more ‘challenging’ field.
We meet in a small boutique coffee shop in the London Borough of Hackney where, over several strong cups of Americano coffee, she shares her story.
As she speaks, it is impossible not to notice that her words suggest an inner steeliness at odds with her soft voice and somewhat gentle demeanour.
‘I worked as a call handler back then, and an emergency medical dispatcher. The trust I worked for combined both those roles into one. The night shifts were tough. The hardest parts were the long spells of doing nothing or dealing with mundane calls. Then, ‘Wham!’ You’d get these moments of incredibly high stress. I didn’t last long, two years, nearly three.
‘Some of the ‘old timers’, the people who’d worked there for ages, they all had the odd weird tale to tell or spooky story to share. But you took it all with a pinch of salt. They seemed like urban legends, you know? Just stuff to scare the new guys with, no more than that.
‘I only had one really strange thing happen to me, but crikey was it strange.
‘The shift started as normal, nothing unusual. Some mum rang up, worried about a rash on her kid’s back, a drunk lad with a snapped finger, just the typical midweek stuff. I remember getting up for a cup of coffee, then sitting back down when the call came in.
‘It was a young woman. She sounded… distant, tired. I could tell she’d taken something. I asked her for her name. She said to call her Tiffany.
‘She asked for an ambulance. She said she’d taken a bunch of pills, that she’d tried to kill herself, but she didn’t mean it. She kept begging for help.
‘I got her address and dispatched an ambulance out to her.
‘We’d been trained to keep people on the line, ‘til the paramedics arrived. She kept kind of dipping in and out on me, going from loud and distraught to quiet and whimpering. She kept saying: ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake, a terrible mistake.’
‘I spoke to her for about five minutes, whilst the ambulance made its way over there. I tried to get more information out of her, specifically what the pills were that she’d taken. She said she didn’t know. So I asked her about her family. But she kept, kind of, coming and going is the only way I can describe it. Hysterical to sad, so sad.
‘I asked her to make sure her front door wasn’t locked, and I heard her put the phone down followed by footsteps and a clicking noise, which I assumed could only be the door being taken off the latch.
‘Now this is before everyone owned mobiles, so I guess she’d put the handset down somewhere near the base unit.
‘She never came back on the line.’
Ms Sawyer wipes tears away from her eyes.
‘I heard the paramedics enter the building, and then some muffled voices talking. I disconnected and took a deep breath. I thought that I’d done all I could.
‘A couple of minutes later, one of the paramedics on the scene rang up. He wanted to know who’d made the initial call.
‘I thought it a bit odd. I told him I’d spoken to Tiffany, the young woman.
‘He asked me if I was sure. Maybe someone else made the call?
‘I was adamant. I’d spoken to a young woman. Not a relative, not a friend. Tiffany.
‘He just said ‘okay’ and then hung up on me.’
She brushes strands of hair away from her face, composing herself.
‘Someone contacted the front desk, asking for the supervisor. I watched him take the call, all the time looking at me. He hung up and then waved me over.
‘He’d been talking to the paramedics on the scene. Apparently when they got into the place they found Tiffany dead in the hall. She was ice cold, showing signs of lividity and rigor mortis.
‘They estimated she’d been there for at least a day.’
According to Ms Sawyer, the recording of all her phone conversations that night were reviewed at length, along with the logs of the paramedics.
All the timestamps pointed to Ms Sawyer conversing with the caller, a woman who apparently committed suicide by an overdose of codeine, an opiate, an overdose which took her life some twenty four hours before she dialled 999.
This is not the first case of this nature experienced by a member of the emergency services that I have come across. Indeed, the more of these stories I investigate, the more I am convinced that the spirit can sometimes linger behind, tied to this world for a short while, particularly after a traumatic death.
I suspect, in this instance, that the phone call Ms Sawyer answered may have been a final plea for help.
But without further, focused research, answers to the nature of the soul will continue to remain elusive. I must add that, once again, this is not the kind of incident that can be replicated under the conditions required to satisfy the scientific method.
A month after her experience, Ms Sawyer left her job as a call handler, stepping back from the edge. I cannot blame her.
If there were any justice in the world, those who toil at the apparently fluid border between life and death would be revered and rewarded accordingly.
Dr Thomas Gotobed