The line between life and death is a fine one, and it is sometimes difficult to identify. Although one government has found it necessary to warn its citizens to refrain from playing doctor by trying to determine whether a family member has died, even physicians, nurses, paramedics, and other professionals sometimes have trouble pinpointing the cause of death or, indeed, even whether death has actually occurred. The thought that medical experts could pronounce living people dead may seem astounding, but this declaration actually happens much more often than we might think.
As this list of 10 people who survived their own “deaths” indicates, it’s not only Mark Twain who had the occasion to protest that “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” Unfortunately, Twain’s quip aside, such incidents are, even for those who manage to survive their own reported “deaths,” rarely, if ever, amusing.
10 Timesha Beauchamp
In August 2020, after being declared dead, 20-year-old Timesha Beauchamp was dispatched to a Michigan funeral home. An employee, preparing to embalm her, unzipped the body bag in which she’d been placed, only to see her “corpse” staring back at him. Geoffrey Fieger, the family’s attorney said, “They were about to embalm her. . . . Had she not had her eyes open, they would have begun draining her blood.”
Paramedics, responding to the family’s call for assistance upon finding Beauchamp “unresponsive,” pronounced her dead when they could not revive her after she stopped breathing. She was hospitalized in critical condition, on a ventilator.
The responders insisted that they followed proper protocols, and officials said that Beauchamp’s undisclosed medical history was the reason her “body” had been released without additional forensics examination.
The city of Southfield, Michigan, has been sued for $50 million for Beauchamp’s wrongful death declaration, and the four paramedics who were on the scene are also being sued. Beauchamp’s shortage of oxygen inside the body bag, the lawsuit contends, caused her to suffer brain damage.
9 Analia Bouter’s Newborn Baby
A supposedly stillborn baby lay in an Argentine morgue for 12 hours, a victim, the infant’s mother, Analia Bouter, says, of hospital negligence. Fifteen minutes after the child’s birth, on April 3, 2012, she was closed inside a coffin and left for dead in the hospital’s refrigerated morgue.
During a prayer by their daughter’s side, Analia and her husband Fabian Veron opened the coffin. Inside, their child was breathing, and the premature baby was subsequently pronounced to be in critical, but stable, condition. The couple named their daughter Luz Milagros, or Miracles.
As a result of the near-fatal mistake, five of the hospital’s employees were suspended. The hospital’s administrator is at a loss for an explanation. “The baby was attended to by obstetricians, gynaecologists and a neonatologist,” he said. “They all reached the same conclusion, that this girl was stillborn.”
8 Charles Crawford
The January 21, 1901, issue of The New York Times reported the strange occurrence of a “Live Man Taken to the Morgue.” According to the item, Charles Crawford, who’d shot his wife Sarah before shooting himself, was taken to the morgue, after being pronounced dead. There, Joseph Murphy, an assistant, discovered that Crawford was still among the living.
After an ambulance first transported Crawford to St. Michael’s Hospital, Sister Soherta visited the vehicle. Her quick examination of him confirmed the suspicion of the police officer in charge: Crawford had died. His body was then transported to Mullins morgue. There, the assistant saw at once that Crawford was alive. Indeed, the “dead” man spoke to Murphy, as Crawford was transferred from the ambulance to a truck used to convey corpses into the morgue.
Left inside the cold morgue of the unheated building, during the dead of winter, Crawford was sure to have died, the newspaper article pointed out, had he not been rescued, and he was lucky, indeed, that Murphy was in attendance the night he was brought to the morgue, because ambulances are not attended by physicians and no doctor was on duty at the hospital the night that Crawford arrived by ambulance, since the hospital used the services of doctors on call.
7 Walter “Snowball” Williams
At age 78, Walter “Snowball” Williams woke inside a body bag after being declared dead at his home in Lexington, Kentucky, in February 2014. He tried to kick himself free, and, the next morning, a funeral home’s employees were astonished to see that the dead man was alive. At the nearby hospital to which he was taken, he was declared to be in stable condition, despite his harrowing ordeal. According to the coroner, Williams’s faulty pacemaker caused the false reading.
With his family, Williams’s nephew, Eddie Hester, who had watched his uncle being zipped inside the body bag, celebrated his uncle’s return from the “dead.” Williams, who had been scheduled to be embalmed the day after his arrival at the funeral home was also thrilled to be alive.
6 Valdelucio de Oliveira Goncalves
Two hours after being declared dead of respiratory failure and multiple-organ failure in August 2014, 54-year-old Valdelucio de Oliveira Goncalves, who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, was spotted moving inside a body bag. His brother, who came to the morgue with other family members, to dress Goncalves, discovered that the supposedly dead man was breathing. His feet were tied, and his nose and ears were plugged with cotton.
The Menandro de Farias Hospital, in Bahia state capital Salvador, initiated an inquiry into the incident. “Hospital directors [would] meet the team who saw the patient to clarify the course of action taken,” a spokesperson for Bahia’s health department said.
5 Larry Donnell Green
Initially, neither paramedics nor the medical examiner were able to detect that Larry Donnell Green was alive. It wasn’t until after he’d been declared dead, placed inside a body bag, transported to the morgue, and deposited in a freezer that he was found to be alive.
Green, who, at age 29, had been struck by a car on a highway in Franklin County, North Carolina, in January 2005, is said, by his parents, to have suffered irreversible brain damage in the accident, resulting in thousands of dollars of medical bills. His family has sued the county medical examiner and the former emergency workers for $20,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for negligence and emotional distress, and they want to ensure that no other families are subjected to the pain and suffering their family has experienced.
Paramedics Randy Kearney, Paul Kilmer, Cathryn Lamell and Pam Hayes, and volunteer emergency medical technician Ronnie Woode were suspended with pay. Green was transferred to Duke University Medical Center in Durham, where he was placed on life support and listed as being in critical condition.
He was discovered to be alive when medical examiner J. B. Perdue examined his body while certifying the cause of Green’s death. Perdue ordered the same paramedics who’d brought Green to the morgue to take him to the hospital.
“There has been a terrible error made and we are on a fast track to getting these problems corrected, so we don’t face such a situation in the future,” Franklin County Manager Chris Courdriet admitted, adding, “It’s an unfortunate happening—no doubt about it.”
Thirty-six-year-old Tamuel Jackson, who struck Green, faced charges.
4 Premature Baby
Apparently, the premature baby didn’t like being in a morgue refrigerator. The infant began crying and moving when undertakers removed him from cold storage at a hospital in La Margarita in the Mexican city of Puebla on October 22, 2020, to hand him over to his parents for the funeral. The child’s father urged the baby, who was born only 23 weeks into the mother’s pregnancy, to “carry on fighting.” The little survivor was assigned to a stay in an intensive care neo-natal unit to be kept under observation.
Miguel Angel Flores, the owner of Funeraria Flores, and one of the undertakers who had come to pick up the baby’s body, said, “We called the father over and he also saw it was crying and so we got the doctor who had signed the death certificate to come urgently.” Flores was amazed that, after six hours inside the refrigerator, the baby was yet alive. “I can’t understand how he didn’t die while he was there,” he said. The refrigeration unit, he observed, was “normally used to keep the limbs of amputees.”
An investigation of the incident is underway.
3 South African Man
After suffering from an asthma attack in July 2011, a 60-year-old South African man’s family assumed he had died. Instead of calling paramedics, they summoned workers from a local mortuary company. Awakening more than two hours later, inside a refrigerated compartment, the “dead” man began screaming, but his shrieks didn’t summon assistance. Instead, the mortuary workers fled, terrified that they were hearing a ghost.
They returned, however, after gathering reinforcements, and the group decided to open the refrigerated compartment. Inside, the “ghost” was confused and shivering, and the workers called an ambulance. Six hours later, after being held at the hospital, under observation, the man was declared stable and sent home.
Sizwe Kupelo, the spokesman for the Eastern Cape Health Department, said, “The temperature in the refrigerator is designed to keep corpses from decomposing. So you can imagine it’s definitely not appropriate for a live person.” And the 60-year-old man’s suffering isn’t likely to have ended, even now, Kupelo suggested. “At the village I bet the rumor is going around that a ghost is amongst the villagers. . . . There will probably be family members that will refuse to stay the night with him now.”
In publicizing the incident, the government reminded its citizens that only qualified medical authorities should pronounce anyone dead. It’s a message that needs to be heard, apparently. The family’s suspicion that their relative had died was verified by the morgue’s employees. Ayanda Maqolo, who owns the morgue, said his driver, who’d gone to the family’s home to pick up the supposed remains, “examined the body, checked his pulse, [and] looked for a heartbeat, but there was nothing.” Maqolo himself had thought the 60-yer-old asthmatic “was about 80.”
2 Rosa Celestrino de Assis
Sixty-year-old Rosa Celestrino de Assis, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also spent several hours inside a body bag deposited inside a refrigerated morgue in Hospital Estadual Adao Pereira Nunes, where she was receiving treatment for a lung infection. Her daughter Rosangela Celestrino was called to the scene to identify her mother’s body. When Rosangela gave her mother a final hug, she “could feel her breathing,” she said, and she screamed, “My mom is alive!” The looks the others in attendance gave her suggested they thought she was “crazy,” she said.
At 7:20 pm, on September 23, 2011, during tests related to her lung infection, a doctor had pronounced Rosa dead, and she was carted off to the morgue. At 10:00 pm that night, Rosangela pronounced her alive, and the “dead” woman was taken to the hospital’s intensive care unit. The nurse who first suspected that Rosa had died was fired. The doctor who pronounced her dead resigned.
1 Tom Sancomb
Unable to contact her 46-year-old boyfriend Tom Sancomb for two days, his girlfriend asked police to conduct a welfare check on him. An officer entered Sancomb’s residence with the apartment manager and found that Sancomb had collapsed. Fire department paramedics did not attempt to resuscitate Sancomb, who was “cold to the touch and in rigor.” He was pronounced dead at the scene at 2:10 am, on May 19, 2015, and forensic investigator Genevieve M. Penn called Sancomb’s brother, John, to deliver the bad news. John asked that an autopsy be conducted to determine the cause of his brother’s death.
At 3:00 pm, when a team arrived to transport Sancomb to the morgue, they noticed that Sancomb was breathing, and he was moving an arm and a leg. Later, his pulse returned, and he was transported to Columbia St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee. What had caused the strange series of events? The Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s “heavily redacted” report deleted the findings, and the hospital’s spokesman, Evan Solochek, refused to disclose the information due to federal privacy laws. Sancomb’s condition, whatever it is, improves daily, his brother said.
About The Author: An English instructor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Gary L. Pullman lives south of Area 51, which, according to his family and friends, explains “a lot.” His four-book series, An Adventure of the Old West, is available.