Brain Death Donation
LifePoint works closely with more than 60 hospitals within South Carolina. Those hospitals provide care for patients with head injuries, a brain tumor, bleeding into the brain or a brain infection.
As a result, the doctors, nurses, chaplains and the patient’s family often find themselves in a situation where pain, suffering and loss occur. Perhaps for the first time in their lives, family members must try to understand and deal with the subjects of:
- Brain death
- The removal of respiratory equipment
- The possibility of organ and tissue donations
Because this is usually a new, unfamiliar experience for most families, it is helpful to have a clear understanding of what takes place if a loved one experiences brain death. Although this information certainly will not take away the sense of pain and loss, hopefully it will help you to better understand what is happening with your loved one and enable you to make difficult, but necessary, decisions if faced with this situation.
Questions & Answers about Brain Death
What does “brain death” mean?
Brain death is a legal definition of death. It is the complete and irreversible cessation (stopping) of all brain function. It means that, as a result of severe trauma or injury to the brain, the body’s blood supply to the brain is blocked, the brain dies and it cannot be revived. Brain death is death. It is permanent and cannot be reversed.
How is it decided that my loved one is brain dead?
A physician conducts the required medical tests to make the diagnosis of brain death. These tests are based on sound and legally accepted medical guidelines. Testing is done to prove that your loved one has no brain reflexes and does not breathe on his/her own.
Spinal reflexes, such as twitching or muscle contractions, are possible even though the brain is dead.
What happens to our loved one while these tests are being done?
The brain can no longer send signals telling the body to breathe. Therefore, a machine, ventilator, will breathe for him/her. Special medications will be given to maintain blood pressure and other body functions.
During the testing for brain death, the ventilator and medications are continued, but they do not interfere with the brain death determination.
If our loved one is really dead, why is his/her heart still beating?
Your loved one may look as if he or she were only sleeping. The ventilator fills the lungs with air and the heart monitor indicates that the heart is still beating. Your loved one may be warm to the touch and have color in the face. But, in fact, your loved one is dead.
The heart beats as a result of chemicals and oxygen in the blood. Medications and the ventilator keep these chemicals and oxygen circulating. Without this artificial help, the heart would stop beating within a short period of time.
Is it possible that our loved one is just in a coma?
No. Brain death is not a coma. A patient in a coma continues to have brain activity and function. When brain death occurs, all brain function ceases. Once brain death has occurred, there is no chance of recovery.
Is there anything else that can be done?
No. Before brain death is declared, everything possible to save your loved one’s life is done. After the diagnosis of brain death is made, there is no chance of recovery. There is no medical treatment that will reverse brain death.
What happens after my loved one is declared brain dead?
Once the diagnosis of brain death is made, your loved one is pronounced legally dead. This is the time that should appear on the death certificate. The time of death is not the time when the ventilator is removed.
Remember that your loved one is already legally dead and removing the ventilator does not cause death.
Does our loved one feel any pain or suffer after brain death is declared?
No. When someone is dead, there is no feeling of pain or suffering.
Would removing the respiratory support equipment be the same as causing the death of my loved one?
No. Once a person is declared brain dead, he or she is already dead. The brain will never recover. Since the person is already dead, you cannot cause his/her death by removing respiratory support.
Are there any clinically documented cases in which a patient was declared brain dead and later restored to a normal life?
No. There are no documented cases where life has been restored when a person is brain dead.
How can we deal with our struggle between hope and letting go?
Remember that there is no medical treatment to reverse brain death and there are no documented cases where life has been restored. When death is declared, it is time to begin the process of letting go.
More questions about brain death?
If you have additional questions, talk with your physician, or contact LifePoint to speak with one of our family support counselors or donor family services counselors at 1-800-462-0755, or you may contact the National Kidney Foundation at 1-800-622-9010. More information can also be found at http://www.organtransplants.org/understanding/death/.
Some of the above information was taken from the brochures Brain Death, A Simple Explanation by the National Kidney Foundation, Understanding Brain Death, Commonly Asked Questions by Bob Koerner, and the Donor Alliance of Denver.