In a December, 2022 Wall Street Journal article “Doctors and Lawyers Debate Meaning of Death as Families Challenge Practices-Changing the determination of brain death potentially affects organ donation”, law and ethics Professor Thaddeus Pope stated that:
“Without brain death, most of the U.S. organ transplant system goes away,” (Emphasis added)
Ironically and on March 16, 2023, the Wilkes Journal-Patriot newspaper in North Carolina published an article “‘Clinically dead’ pastor recovering about Ryan Marlow, a father of three young children who was pronounced *“clinically deceased” and brain dead” after “a severe case of Listeriosis impacted Ryan’s neurological system, causing abscesses on his brain stem and leaving him in a deep coma” in August, 2022.
“The hospital recorded his time of death but he remained on life support to keep his organs live before removing them since he was an organ donor.” The wife insisted on further testing and that showed he had blood flow to his brain.
According to the news article, “On Oct. 6, 2022, he awoke from a coma by indicating yes to a simple question from a therapist”, Ryan is now home and making more progress with rehab.
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 not to worry because 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 and that there were cases of “brain dead” people who lived for months or years.
In my 2021 blog “Rethinking Brain Death and Organ Donation“, I wrote:
“I have been writing for many years about the implications of brain death, the lesser known “donation after cardiac/circulatory death”, diagnosed brain death cases like the supposedly “impossible” prolonged survival and maturation of Jahi McMath, and the unexpected recoveries like Zack Dunlap’s.
Last August, I wrote about the World Brain Death Project and the effort to establish a worldwide consensus on brain death criteria and testing to develop the “minimum clinical standards for determination of brain death”. (Emphasis added)
I also wrote about the current effort “to revise the (US) Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) to assure a consistent nationwide approach to consent for brain death testing” that could otherwise lead to a situation where ”a patient might be legally dead in Nevada, New York, or Virginia (where consent is not required). But that same patient might not be legally dead in California, Kansas, or Montana (where consent is required and might be refused)”. (All emphasis added)”
In 2021, 107 experts in medicine, bioethics, philosophy, and law, are challenging the proposed revisions to the UDDA. While they admit that they “do not necessarily agree with each other on all aspects of the brain-death debate or on fundamental ethical principles”, they do object to three aspects of the revision to:
“(1) specify the Guidelines (the adult and pediatric diagnostic guidelines) as the legally recognized “medical standard,” (2) to exclude hypothalamic function from the category of “brain function,” and (3) to authorize physicians to conduct an apnea test without consent and even over a proxy’s objection.” (All emphasis added)
These experts’ objections to those proposed revisions are that:
” (1) the Guidelines have a non-negligible risk of false-positive error, (2) hypothalamic function (a small but essential part of the brain helps control the pituitary gland and regulates many body functions) is more relevant to the organism as a whole than any brainstem reflex, and (3) the apnea test carries a risk of precipitating BD (brain death) in a non-BD patient….provides no benefit to the patient, does not reliably accomplish its intended purpose”… and “should at the very least require informed consent, as do many procedures that are much more beneficial and less risky.” (All emphasis added)
And these experts further state that:
“People have a right to not have a concept of death that experts vigorously debate imposed upon them against their judgment and conscience; any revision of the UDDA should therefore contain an opt-out clause for those who accept only a circulatory-respiratory criterion.”
AUTOMATED ORGAN DONOR REFERRAL
In the January 2023 United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) document “Actions to strengthen the U.S. organ donation and transplant system” has several suggestions such as:
“Seek authorization for the OPTN (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network) to collect or receive data on ICU deaths for patients under age 70 for faster and more accurate monitoring of organ procurement organization (OPO) performance”
“The OPTN will continue to advocate for a national investment in the automation of donor referral” that “would ensure every
potential donor is referred every time. Every hospital with the ability to ventilate patients would need to participate, a requirement that is beyond the authority of UNOS or the OPTN. Automated donor referral would be a significant innovation. Our nation has the technology to automate this important step, but it will not occur without a national commitment.” (All emphasis added)
Many years ago, I served on a hospital ethics committee when a doctor complained that he could not arrange an organ transplantation from an elderly woman in a coma caused by a stroke because she “failed” one of the hospital’s mandated tests for brain death. He said he felt like he was “burying two good kidneys”.
Although I already knew that the medical criteria used to determine brain death vary — often widely — from one hospital to another, one young doctor checked our area hospitals and came back elated after he found a hospital that did not include the test the elderly woman “failed”. He suggested that our hospital adopt the other hospital’s criteria to allow more organ donations.
When I pointed out that the public could lose trust in the ethics of organ donations if they knew we would change our rules just to get more organ transplants, I was told that I being hard-hearted to people who desperately needed such organs.
Unfortunately, now some countries’ healthcare ethics have degenerated to the point where euthanasia by organ donation is legally allowed.
Personally, I am all for the ethical donation of organs and tissues. Years ago, I volunteered to donate a kidney to a friend and one of our grandsons was saved in 2013 by an adult stem cell transplant.
But I do not have an organ donor card nor encourage others to sign one because I believe that standard organ donor cards give too little information for truly informed consent. Instead, my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like corneas, skin and bones that can be ethically donated after natural death and will only agree to that donation.
The bottom line is that what we don’t know-or allowed to know-can indeed hurt us, especially when it comes to organ donation. We need to demand transparency and accurate information for truly informed consent as well as conscience rights because good medical ethics are the foundation of a trustworthy healthcare system.