The narrow, inscrutable zone between undeniably still here and unequivocally gone includes a range of states that look like life but may not be: a beating heart, a functioning digestive system, even moving fingers and toes. Death is less a moment than a process, a gradual drift out of existence as essential functions switch off, be it rapidly or one by one.
It was exactly midnight when Colleen Burns was wheeled into the operating room at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, N.Y. She had been deep in a coma for several days after overdosing on a toxic cocktail of drugs. Scans of electrical activity in her brain were poor, and oxygen didn’t seem to be flowing. Burns was brain-dead, her family was told; if they wanted to donate her organs, now was the time to do it.