National Geographic : 2016 Apr
the crossing 51 still a little awestruck. “His skin looked totally fresh and viable, no decomposition whatso- ever.” The sense of the dead man’s presence, even at close range, helped inspire Davidson to study thukdam scientifically. He has assembled some basic medical equipment, such as EEGs and stethoscopes, at two field stations in India and has trained an on-site team of 12 Tibetan physicians to test these monks—preferably be- ginning while they’re still alive—to see whether any brain activity continues after their death. “It’s likely that in many of these practitioners, they enter a state of meditation before they die, and there is some kind of maintenance of that state afterward,” Davidson says. “Just how that occurs, and what the explanation might be, eludes our conventional understanding.” His research, though grounded in Western science, aims for a different kind of understanding, a more nuanced one that might clarify what hap- pens not only to monks in thukdam but also to anyone traveling across the border between life and death. Disintegration usually proceeds swiftly after a person dies. When the brain stops func- tioning, it loses all ability to keep the other systems in balance. So to allow Karla Pérez to continue nurturing her fetus after her brain stopped working, a team of more than a hun- dred doctors, nurses, and other hospital work- ers had to fill in as ad hoc orchestrators. They took readings continuously, around the clock, of Pérez’s blood pressure, kidney function, and electrolytes, all the while adjusting what was going into her tubes and IV lines. But even as the team members performed the functions of Pérez’s ruined brain, they still had trouble thinking of her as dead. To a person, they treated her as though she were in a deep coma, greeting her by name when they came into the room and saying goodbye when they left. To some extent these gestures toward Pérez’s personhood were made out of respect for the family, a courtesy to avoid seeming to treat her as an inert baby vessel. But in a way, the gestures went beyond courtesy. They reflected how the Berta Jimenez talks daily to an image of her daughter, Karla Pérez, declared brain-dead in 2015 while she was pregnant. Doctors fought to keep Pérez’s body functioning for 54 days, long enough to let baby Angel grow. Jimenez and her husband are raising Angel and his three- year-old sister, Genesis.