Materializing onto the 11th floor of St. Patrick's hospital in Dublin, Ireland, Andy began floating down a long, polished corridor. He passed through a number of doctors, nurses and orderlies, while drifting towards a set of double doors at the end of the hall.
Going through those doors, he found himself inside the hospital's intensive care unit. There were several beds situated about the wide room, each surrounded by a multitude of machines, carts and tubes. Andy heard the sound of hissing respirators and beeping electrocardiogram monitors. The lights were dim and it was very quiet within the hushed space. Six of the eight beds were occupied by motionless persons; five of them being elderly patients and one young man being perhaps only thirty.
Feeling subdued and shiftless, Andy went over to one of the complex, heavy life-support systems, regarding its various cables and switches. Speaking in a lowered voice, he asked it what it was doing.
"I'm sustaining a comatose patient," it whispered back in a soft, electronic voice.
"You seem to be a pretty serious piece of machinery," commented Andy, who was still admiring the numerous connections that linked the unit to other computers and monitors. "I am an IBM AE-35, a very sophisticated human respiration apparatus. I maintain the respirators, which keep a comotose patient alive."
"What is that like," asked Andy, "keeping someone alive, who has brain damage?"
"Well," began the machine, "it is a very strange thing, because of what I am capable of picking up from the patient."
"You're capable of picking things up from your patients?"
"Oh yes. The oxygen tells me..."
"How interesting," nodded Andy. He examined the long, rubber chords, which emerged from the machine's upper portion, extending into the patient's mouth.
"The oxygen," continued the life-support system, "works its way up into the brain and that's where it's able to survey the patient's state of mind."
Andy moved over to a box-shaped panel situated above the bed and sat down. Crossing his legs, he asked the machine if it would be willing to share with him some of the things it had experienced over the years.
"I don't see why not...I'm a fairly lonely life-support unit, in fact. I have the rare opportunity of seeing into the thoughts of a dying person, but I never get the chance to relate those images to someone else."
"Well, you can tell me now...what sort of things are you able to see through the oxygen?"
"All sorts of wonderful and terrible things."
"I once kept a stroke victim alive for five months. She was suffering from cerebral thrombosis and had lost a great deal of tissue along the brainstem. I was only able to send a small amount of oxygen through her right middle cerebral artery and as a result, the left side of her body was paralized."
"Was she still thinking?" asked Andy.
"In some ways she was. I kept picking up a series of images from her, inwhich she was visualizing a closed, geometrical form. I think that this form was a cubic octahedron, with its alternating facets having open windows. This woman kept visualizing the shape over and over again. Sometimes it was small enough for her to cradle and sometimes it was as large as a room. I always had the impression that she was wanting to enter this space, seeing it as a sort of new area through which she could escape her coma. She died one morning wanting to access that invisible octahedron in her head."
"Do you think she succeeded in accessing it?"
"I don't know...everything went black when she expired and it sort of just rolled away..."
"So what are some of the other things you have seen?"
"On another occation I sustained a very old man for nearly a week. That was back in 1987 and he was one hundred and two-years-old at the time. He had a pituary tumor, which had drastically lowered his levels of hormones to the point that he was dying of diabetes insipidus. Similar to the woman with the geometrical form, this man had reoccuring dreams about a large, black cat. His visions were largely based on information from his youth, because I was able to see a Victorian house and garden as setting."
"What did this cat do?"
"In the first dreams, the cat was always outside, just beyond the picked fence of the garden, purring and pacing back and forth. But the more the man deteriated, the more the cat started coming inside the house and eventually up into the man's bedroom. On the day that his metabolism completely gave out, the cat was sitting on his chest, smothering him with its warm breath. I couldn't tell if the man was happy to have the cat with him or not...his mouth was gaping open in a sort of expression that could have been ecstacy or terror..."
"These visions seem weird, almost tormented and restless," remarked Andy.
"Indeed they are," agreed the machine. "Through all the comatosed thoughts I have been prevy to, I have always found a common fevered, anxiety. It is as if the person in the coma is rummaging through their personal psychology, searching for some way out of themselves, while at the same time being confronted with a whole variety of inner demons."
"Why do you call them, inner demons?"
"Because some of the things I have seen can have no other name...victims of meningitis, poliomyelitis, skull fractures and epilepsy have all breathed their last breaths through my green chords. There are tingly, seizured moments when Delta waves turn chaotic and all the things that that person ever knew become mutated into freakish, greasy nightmares. The faces of their friends and loved ones melt together, becoming an unrecognizable epigenesis. They see themselves inside-out, peering at a plethora of associations from the uterus to the death bed... It is within these dreams in particular, that the comatose patient truely dangles on the edge of the world, caught for a short time between who they once were and who they are having to become."
"Do any of the patients ever know exactly what has happened to them?"
"I'm not sure about that. Many of them do search though. A young girl, who was only sixteen at the time of her auto accident, lingered in a Persistent Vegetative State for nearly two years. Her eyes were open every day and she could even move her pupils, yet her entire cerebral cortex had been shattered by the impact of the second vehicle. During the twenty-two months I helped her breathe, she thought of a great many things. She would often go for a walk along the subdural hematoma in her brain, watching her mind slowly drown in blood. Her name was Brid and I recall her being surprisingly serene within herself. She breathed very slowly, taking what I offered her graciously...
One day she began to play with a strange little fellow, who had orange hair and a waxen, jolly face. He would call out to her, from across the dura matter, his voice echoing off the wasteland of her contusions. Brid would follow him for hours without saying a word, as he led her to many different places inside her subconsciousness. She remembered who she had been, what colours she had liked and what games had been her favourites. She never seemed afraid of loosing herself and letting go of the world... It was as if she trusted this strange, little man to take care of her."
"What eventually happened to her?"
"On the afternoon that her parents decided to disconnect me and they removed my tubes from her throat, I saw Brid playing with the little man, pulling him close, then pushing him away...at a certain moment, she looked at him very closely in the eyes and it was at that instant I realized for the first time that she had been holding a mirror up to her face...all that time, this strange little man with the orange hair, had been Brid herself, wearing a mask of inner identity. She had recreated herself from within, searching for contact on a desserted island. What struck me the most, was the fact that the face of death, which had come to take her away into oblivion, had been her own."