In 2009, pop star Michael Jackson, desperate to sleep, called his personal physician, Conrad Murray. To relieve the troubled star, Murray administered Propofol and anti-anxiety medications, then left. Jackson was found dead the next morning. Murray was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
Most people who have had a general anesthetic in the last twenty years have had Propofol. It is the drug that helps us ‘go under’ and stay there as necessary. But where is ‘there’. Where do we go under an anaesthetic? And who are ‘we’ when we enter this oblivion? These questions are at the heart of Kate Cole-Adams’s book Anaesthesia. Subtitled ‘the gift of oblivion, the mystery of consciousness’, the book, like Michael Jackson’s death, highlights the slippery boundaries between sleep, anaesthesia, and death. The subtitle is suggestive, conjuring the allure of a black and silent world. While it replicates entering an abyss, the experience of being anaesthetised can be strangely unremarkable. Most of us think of it as the path by which we can avoid the pain of a day procedure or the trauma of a major operation. Indeed, as the author notes, the respite from consciousness that anaesthesia offers can be a ‘gift’, a resting place, but one from which we are likely to return.