July 16, 2011

'Brain death' may not be real death

'Brain dead’ Quebec woman wakes up after family refuses organ donation

Last week, Madeleine Gauron, a Quebec woman identified as viable for organ donation after doctors diagnosed her as “brain dead,” surprised her family and physicians when she recovered from a coma, opened her eyes, and began eating.

The 76-year-old woman was hospitalized at the Hospital Sainte Croix de Drummondville for an inflammation of the gums, which required a brief operation.  During her recovery, hospital staff gave the elderly woman solid food, which she had been unable to consume in her family home for some time, and left her unattended.  Choking on the food, she fell into a coma, after unsuccessful resuscitation.

Medical staff contacted her family, explaining to them that their mother was “brain dead,” with no hope of recovery.  Citing Gauron’s eyes as particularly viable, the doctors asked if the family would agree to organ donation.

While supporting the possibility of donation, her shocked family first demanded further medical tests to prove Gauron was really dead.

The next day, the family was astonished to learn that Gauron had awakened.  Shortly afterwards, she sat up in bed and ate yogurt.

“If we had decided to donate her organs, they would have killed her,” said her son.
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As anecdotes similar to Gauron’s continue to pile up, “brain death” as a legitimate diagnosis of actual death is increasingly being questioned by concerned family members and medical professionals, some of whom have charged that the “brain death” criteria was created simply to ensure that harvested organs are fresh.

Until I read this story, I had no idea how many people have recovered from 'brain death'. 

“Brain Death” is Life, Not Death: Neurologists, Philosophers, Neonatologists, Jurists, and Bioethicists

If a patient is able to process oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream, maintain a normal body temperature, digest food and expel waste, grow to normal adult size from the age of four to twenty, and even carry a child to term, can he or she be considered dead? Can a person who is "dead" wake up and go on later to finish a university degree? Can a corpse get out of bed, go home and go fishing? Can he get married and have children?

These are among the real-life stories of patients declared "brain dead" presented by medical experts at the "Signs of Life" conference on "brain death" criteria held near the Vatican in Rome last week. Ten speakers, who are among the world’s most eminent in their fields, sounded a ringing rebuke to the continued support among medical professionals and ethicists for "brain death" as an accepted criterion for organ removal.

One neurologist told the Rome conference, “Brain Death” Test Causes Brain Necrosis and Kills Patients

One of the medical world’s key diagnostic tools for determining "brain death" preliminary to organ retrieval, actually causes severe brain damage it purports to determine, neurologist Dr. Cicero Coimbra told attendees at a conference held in Rome last week. With the so-called "apnoea test," Coimbra said, brain damaged patients who might be recoverable are deprived of oxygen for up to ten minutes, rendering the injuries to the brain irreversible.
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Since the world-wide adoption of the "brain death" criteria, developed at Harvard University in 1968, Dr. Coimbra said, "The lives of thousands of human beings, including children, adolescents and young adults, are lost every year in each country."

The premise of the standard Harvard Criteria for "brain death" is that lack of brain function implies absence of blood circulation to the brain, which is what causes brain necrosis, or the irreversible death of brain cells. But since the definition of the Harvard Criteria, he explained, medical scientists have discovered that the absence of discernable brain function cited by the criteria is not the same as "brain necrosis," or true brain death. In many cases where there is no discernable brain activity, patients have recovered with appropriate treatment.
Posted by Jill Fallon at July 16, 2011 9:14 PM | Permalink