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Every Thursday morning on the heart transplant service, our medical team would get a front-row seat to witness an epic battle raging under a microscope. Tiny pieces of heart tissue taken from patients with newly transplanted hearts would be broadcast onto a gigantic screen, showing static images of pink heart cells being attacked by varying amounts of blue immune cells. The more blue cells there were, the more voraciously they were chomping away the pink cells, the more evidence that the patient’s inherently xenophobic immune system was rejecting the foreign, transplanted heart.

There was so much beauty to be found in the infinitesimal push and pull between life and death those slides depicted that I would fantasize about having them framed and put up in my house. Yet the more I studied those cells, the more I realized that they might have the answers to one of the most difficult subjects of our time.

Throughout our history, particularly recently, the human race has looked far and wide to answer a complex question — what is a good death? With so many life-sustaining technologies now able to keep us alive almost indefinitely, many believe that a “natural” death is a good one. With technology now invading almost every aspect of our lives, the desire for a natural death experience mirrors trends noted in how we wish to experience birth, travel and food these days.

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Image: By Volker Brinkmann – (November 2005). “Neutrophil engulfing Bacillus anthracis”. PLoS Pathogens 1 (3): Cover page. DOI:10.1371. Retrieved on 2009-01-04., CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2107792

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