The student who came back to life

Tayyab Jafar tells The Journal the remarkable story of how he survived death

Credit: 
Vincent Lin

“I had died around 3 or 4 a.m. and they found my body at 8:30 a.m.” 

On January 15 of this year, Tayyab Jafar died of hypothermia in the snow somewhere near Queen’s campus. 

Jafar’s body was found by his housemate, something he learned later on. 

When it comes to the circumstances of his death, Jafar, ArtSci ’17 can only rely on what he’s told. According to the newly-returned Queen’s student, his parents know more about the first week after his death than he does, and every time he hears it, Jafar learns something new.

On that snowy morning in January, he was rushed to Kingston General Hospital (KGH) to be treated by a large number of doctors and nurses. After being dead for five and a half hours, Jafar had no heartbeat or vital signs and had already started to bloat, a natural process that occurs after death, when he was admitted to the hospital’s care.

“I thought they were exaggerating but when I saw the pictures, they weren’t joking. My head was the size of a watermelon,” Jafar said, gesturing to his head.

As the team of medical professionals were racing to resuscitate him Jafar’s parents were at their home in Burlington, ON, going through the motions of their morning routines when the police knocked on the door. They’d come to the house to inform them of their son’s death — a duty usually done by the police in person.

“I don’t think my parents comprehended at that time because my dad was just waking up and my mom was just like, ‘what?’”

Given the news of their son’s passing, Jafar said his parents were panicking, getting dressed and ready to drive the four hours it took to get to Kingston. That was, until the police came again with more information.

“At 9:30 a.m., the police got a radio call saying that I had a heartbeat and they had revived me.”

Jafar pulled up his shirt to reveal the scars on his ribcage from the CPR that was performed on him for an hour and a half. The scars weren’t from the CPR itself but rather the incisions from when the doctors checked Jafar’s internal health with a camera.

When asked if he remembers what it was like being dead, Jafar said he wasn’t too certain.

“I don’t know if it, maybe, was the coma they put me in but I just remember there was nothing.”

“It’s hard to describe, I can’t just say I saw black or grey, there was just nothing and then, all of sudden, there was something and it was me alive.”

When Jafar’s parents had arrived at KGH, though Jafar had been resuscitated, he was still in critical condition and the doctors and nurses were in a frenzy.

“My parents said they were arguing with each [other about] what to do and how to proceed.”

Following what little outlined procedure exists when treating a resurrected man, the doctors went forward with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a technique that removes and artificially oxygenates blood before returning it to the body. ECMO is a highly-dangerous intervention and is generally only used as a last resort treatment to keep patients alive.

“Most of the scars on my body are from the ECMO machine where they took out my arteries to oxygenate my blood,” Jafar said. 

“Once the blood starts flowing out, it takes time for it to boil up or oxygenate. Basically, they had to make sure that the amount of blood going out had to be equal to the amount of blood going in.”

Jafar explained they could only run the ECMO machine for about 12 hours before he would start bleeding internally. Once his body temperature had risen 15.3 degrees, even detaching Jafar from the ECMO machine carried a high fatality rate.

“At this point, anything and everything could kill me.”

“They’re also doing a million other things at the same time. Because, again, there are 20 specialists all in their own fields.”

After the team at KGH was able to stabilize Jafar, they were treating his complications as they arose. Jafar described weighing around 70 pounds and battling reoccurring fevers and rashes after all the excess fluid had been drained from him.

“They [had] just brought a dead body back to life, there are so many problems with me.”

Jafar was able to form his first memories since the accident a little more than a week later. He recalled opening his eyes, seeing his housemate and his father by his bedside and wondering if he was dreaming.

 “I just close my eyes again, and I’m waking up every couple hours or days, until little bits of memories of doctors cleaning me up and me asking what’s happening because I still don’t know.”

With a tracheostomy tube in his windpipe, coupled with the physical trauma of the accident, Jafar was unable to speak or move. Trapped in his body, he still didn’t know exactly what had happened to him.

To help him communicate, Jafar’s housemate wrote the alphabet on a whiteboard and Jafar would signal which row, and eventually the letter he wanted to say, as his housemate’s finger hovered over it.

“Apparently, the first thing I wrote was ‘If I need help, how do I call nurse?’”

Jafar said they laughed and told him that the nurses were always watching him but, since Jafar was induced in and out of a comatose state, he still struggles to remember what happened at KGH.

“I probably have no more than a minute and a half of memories from January 15 to February 4 before they took me off all the drugs and transported me to Oakville Memorial Hospital.”

Jafar said he was transported to Oakville since the hospital was five minutes away from where his family lived, but the staff at KGH were fighting over whether it was the best decision for Jafar to leave, considering the fact that the medical team there were the ones who brought him back.

“They told me, ‘We want to see you walk out of this hospital.’”

Ultimately, Jafar was transported to Oakville-Trafalgar Memorial Hospital via ambulance. In his first week there, Jafar recounted that his lungs were so weak, they would sporadically collapse.

“I’m kicking my legs, the nurses are running outside and the next thing I know, I wake up a minute later, and there are six doctors in the room. One with an X-ray machine, one’s pumping me with a bag of something — I didn’t even know what it was. Because at that point, you just go into shock and lose consciousness.”

“Imagine blowing all the air out of your body and holding your breath after that.”

Even today, almost a year after the accident, Jafar said that his lungs currently have the functionality of someone in their seventies.

In addition to the damage done to Jafar’s lungs, he sustained severe nerve damage from his shoulders down to his fingers on both arms. There’s also nerve damage on Jafar’s left leg — presumably the side of his body that was in the snow.

With no feeling and a constant hot-cold pain in his limbs, Jafar said that one of the doctors — after conducting a nerve test that included needles and shocking him — said that Jafar may never have use of his hands again.

Jafar said that the news left him sobbing in disbelief. 

“When the doctor told me I couldn’t use my hands again, I said to myself, no, that’s not happening.”

That night, Jafar spent the evening staring at his hand trying to figure out how to move them again. After hours of focusing, Jafar was able to get his pinky to twitch. Later, he managed to get three fingers twitching by the time he enrolled in physical rehabilitation.

On March 29 — after being hospitalized for two and a half months — Jafar was finally discharged.

Jafar said that returning to his parents’ home was depressing since he had limited mobility.

“I was completely dependent on everyone, the only thing that I could do myself was open some doors,” Jafar said.

Jafar’s depression turned into boredom and he began to re-teach himself independence. He found that he could use computers typing with one finger at a time for short periods of time.

One day, while watching his brothers play video games, Jafar discovered a hidden talent of being able to play with his feet. Jafar used that skill to dominate his brothers in all the console games. 

“Once I figured out I could play video games with my feet, I kind of got a little bit lax on the physical exercises the physiotherapist gave me,” he said. 

Jafar said that he eventually got to the point where he was playing The Witcher on the hardest level possible and even caught the developers’ attention through a Reddit post, receiving a goodie bag.

“It was amazing,” Jafar said, grinning.

Recovering ahead of the doctors’ original estimations, Jafar miraculously avoided the brain damage typically associated with hypothermia. He’s now back at Queen’s taking a reduced and accommodated course load in the general Arts program after formerly being an Astrophysics major.

Jafar says he’s looking forward to having a normal life again and is trying not to think too far ahead.

“Right now, I’m in that phase where it can wait.”

 

Jafar, pictured on the bottom left, healthy and smiling with his friends in the fall semester of 2016.

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