Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Brain Death

Most people who sign organ donor cards believe what organ donation campaigns tell us, such as:

“A person who has sustained a severe brain injury, such as from an accident, stroke or lack of oxygen is put on artificial support.

Doctors work hard to save the patient’s life, but sometimes there is a complete and irreversible loss of brain function. The patient is declared clinically dead. Only then is donation an option.” (Emphasis added)

This is termed “brain death” and organs are harvested while the patient is still on a ventilator (breathing machine) and has a heartbeat.

But as a May 29, 2018 Wall Street Journal article Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Death- As families challenge the determination of brain death, physicians are changing their approach.”, the assumptions about brain death are now being challenged because of cases like Jahi McMath, a 13 year old girl who suffered complications after a 2013 tonsillectomy in California and was declared “brain dead” but who is still alive in New Jersey after her parents refused to allow the ventilator to be removed.

With this article as well as a February 5, 2018 New Yorker magazine article titled “What Does It Mean to Die?” about the McMath case, the public is now becoming aware of the ethical, legal and medical controversies surrounding “brain death” and questions are being asked.

One doctor quoted in the Wall Street Journal article stated:

“Dr. Ross believes states should adopt laws that would allow people to choose their preferred definition (of death). One likely consequence would be that physicians wouldn’t do the brain-death examination if an individual doesn’t want death determined based on neurological criteria, she says.

For some of us, it is more about the quality of life rather than quantity of life,” she says.” (Emphasis added)

Alarmingly, the use of “quality of life” determinations as a basis for withdrawal of treatment decisions expected to end in death are already a serious problem when it comes to people with brain injuries or disabilities.

And doctors like Dr. Doyen Nguyen are writing articles like Brain Death and True Patient Care” that cite encouraging results regarding survival and even some good recoveries when severely brain-injured patients received newer treatments like body cooling and neuro-intensive care.

MY JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE FACTS ABOUT BRAIN DEATH

Back in the early 1970s when I was a young intensive care unit nurse, no one questioned the new innovation of brain death organ transplantation. We trusted the experts.

However, as the doctors diagnosed brain death in our unit and I cared for these patients until their organs were harvested, I started to ask questions. For example, doctors assured us that these patients would die anyway within two weeks even if the ventilator to support breathing was continued, but no studies were cited. I also asked if we were making a brain-injured patient worse by removing the ventilator for several minutes for the apnea test to see if he or she would breathe since we knew that brain cells start to die when breathing stops for more than a few minutes.

I was told that greater minds than mine had it all figured out.

It was years before I realized that these doctors did not have the answers to my concerns either. After more investigation, I found that my questions were valid.

I also discovered that some mothers declared “brain dead” were able to gestate their babies for weeks or months to a successful delivery before their ventilators were removed and that there were many cases of “brain dead” people who lived for months or years and even grew proportionally and achieved puberty.

If the legal definition of brain death is “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” (Emphasis added), these cases would seem to be impossible.

And when I served on a hospital medical ethics committee, I was horrified when one doctor found a less rigorous set of brain death tests at another local hospital and proposed that we adopt this standard so that more of our patients could be declared “brain dead” for organ donation.

Investigating further, I also found “near-miss” cases like Zach Dunlap’s. Zach Dunlap is a young man who was declared brain dead after an accident in 2007. Testing showed no blood flow to his brain and he was being considered for organ donation when a relative discovered a physical response. Four months later, Zach was making plans to return to work. In an interview, he said he heard a doctor say he was dead and it “just made me mad inside”.

CONCLUSION

As I pointed out in my Spring, 2016 NCBC Quarterly journal article titled “Brain Death: Do We Know Enough?” :

“When cases like those of McMath and Dunlap are routinely dismissed instead of rigorously investigated to establish the facts, medical certainty is not achieved and medical integrity is undermined. In addition, when hospitals set their own standards and policies for determining brain death without external accountability, lives—as well as the essential and necessary trust in the health care system—can and possibly will be lost.” (Emphasis added)

Personally, I am not against all organ donation.

In the past, I have offered to be a living donor for a friend who needed a kidney, watched my grandson cured of a rare disease through a bone marrow transplant and told my family that I wanted to donate my corneas and any other tissues that can be taken after natural death.

I am open to new facts but, until then, I refuse an apnea test or any other test to specifically determine brain death if I have a severe brain injury.

And I will not sign an organ donor card.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Brain Death

  1. Nancy, I have been writing for 7 years on the legal definition of “brain death”. That is all it is, is a legal definition. NOT true death. I found out the hard way when my son was pronounced “brain dead” after an auto accident. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t reach out to me, to find out how to get off the organ donor list.

    Like

    • I am so sorry for your loss. A few years ago, I was on a radio show where a man said that after hearing me on a previous show, he tried to get off his state’s organ donor registry but was told by a bureaucrat that they could find no way to do this and that no one had ever tried before!

      Like

    • Missy, give it a rest. Everyone dies, even brain death is death. You seem to pop up everywhere with your grief. You need help, I’m sure there’s a good therapist in your town. Find peace.

      Like

  2. Hello Nancy;
    As a retired physician I would like to congratulate you on a wonderful article. It discusses issues that are important to each and everyone of us throughout our entire lives. And, it directly points out that the ” brain death” decisions being made in our country ( and in the world ) need to be looked at anew.
    Once again, Congratulation!

    CE Moon, MD

    Like

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