British Columbia

Dying loved ones can hear in their final hours, UBC study suggests

Families can take some measure of comfort from spending time talking to their loved ones, even when they don't respond, says retired palliative care physician.

Researcher cautions hearing a loved one and understanding them are not the same

New research from the University of British Columbia suggests people who are unresponsive can hear, even hours before they die. (Chris Kreussling)

For 30 years, Hilary Jordan talked to her husband about the goings on in their family and the world but she wasn't sure if the police officer injured in a crash could hear anything as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed.

"I like to believe that he did hear me,'' she said in an interview this week.

"I said something to him before he passed, which made him know that it was OK to leave us, and I had never said those words before, so shortly thereafter he did pass. I do believe he could hear.''

Ian Jordan suffered a head injury when he and another officer were on their way to a call in Victoria in September 1987. He died in April 2018.

Const. Ian Jordan suffered a head injury when he and another officer were on their way to a call in Victoria in September 1987. He died in April 2018, after more than 30 years in a coma. (CBC)

New research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) suggests people who are unresponsive can hear, even hours before they die.

Lead author Elizabeth Blundon, who recently graduated from the university with a PhD in psychology, said the findings may bear out a persistent belief among health-care workers that hearing is the last sense to go in the dying process.

The study, published recently in Scientific Reports, was the first to investigate hearing when people are close to death, in one case six hours beforehand, Blundon said.

The research involved eight patients at a hospice doing a hearing task when they were still responsive. Five of them repeated the task when they became unconscious.

A control group of 17 young, healthy participants also took part in the study, which was completed between 2013 and 2017.

Participants wore a cap with 64 electrodes that measured brain waves as they listened to a series of tones grouped in five patterns that would occasionally change.

Those in the control group pressed a button when they heard the pattern change while the responsive patients at the hospice were asked to count the number of times the pattern changed.

The brain activity of the control group and the responsive hospice patients was very similar to that of the unresponsive patients, Blundon said.

Hearing is different than understanding, researcher cautions

"It's an encouraging sign that at the very least the brain is reacting and processing at some capacity the auditory information that it's receiving,'' she said of the glimpse into brain activity that persists in the transition between life and death.

"But I can't tell anybody if their loved one understands them or knows who's talking to them,'' Blundon said, adding further research is needed to delve deeper into the mysteries of end-of-life hearing.

Previous research into hearing of unresponsive patients has been done in Europe on patients with traumatic brain injury and showed they also respond to sound, said Blundon, who hopes to continue her work at the University of Miami, where she may also look into the effects of music on those near death.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, the researchers analyzed data collected from healthy control participants, from from hospice patients when they were conscious and from the same hospice patients when they became unresponsive. (REUTERS)

Dr. Romayne Gallagher, who recently retired as a palliative care physician at St. John Hospice, where part of the study was completed, said she noticed during 30 years in her job that patients would react positively when they heard the voice of a loved one, even on the phone.

Families can take some measure of comfort from spending time talking to their loved ones, even when they don't respond, she added.

"A lot of people are scared of this time and they don't quite know what to do and we often say to them, 'Talk to them, play their favourite music.' Things like that.'"

Jordan said she spent thousands of hours "chit-chatting'' with her husband and playing his favourite music from the 1970s and '80s on a boom box she brought to hospital.

"It just seemed natural, speaking to him,'' she said, adding he seemed to respond most favourably every time she mentioned their son Mark, who was 16 months old when the crash happened.

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