While few of us will experience all the symptoms of dying, most of us will have at least one, if not more. This is what to expect.
The Death Rattle
“The graves are full of ruined bones, of speechless death-rattles” (Pablo Neruda)
We suspected the patient wouldn’t survive off the ventilator. A blood clot had crawled up one of the vessels in the back of his brain, blocking blood flow to the area that controlled alertness. He would die from not being awake enough to cough.
The beat of the death rattle began when the breathing tube was removed and continued until life was done. It was a gurgling, crackling sound, like blowing air through a straw at the bottom of a cup of water. The average time between the onset of death rattles to death itself is 16 hours. For him, it was six.
The death rattle is a symptom of swallowing dysfunction. Normally, our tongue rises to the top of the mouth and propels saliva, liquid or food backward. The epiglottis, a flap in the throat, flops forward to protect the swallowed substance from entering the airway.
In the dying process, the symphony of swallowing becomes a cacophony of weak and mistimed movements. Sometimes the tongue propels saliva backward before the epiglottis has time to cover the airway. Other times, the tongue fails to push at all and saliva trickles down the airway to the lungs in a steady stream. The death rattle is the lungs’ attempt to breathe through a layer of saliva.
Despite the sound’s alarming roughness, it’s unlikely that the death rattle is painful. The presence of a death rattle doesn’t correlate with signs of respiratory distress.
As often happens in medicine, we treat based on intuition. To lessen the volume of the death rattle, we give medications that decrease saliva production. Sometimes, we are successful in silencing the rattle. More of the time, we placate our instinctive concern for a noise that probably sounds worse than it feels. Without…