Are brain dead patients really dead? That’s the question many people are asking because of stories circulated by irresponsible journalists, TV shows and movies who seek sensational plots and people who just refuse to acknowledge the facts.
The simple answer to this question is, “Absolutely. If you’ve been declared brain dead by a qualified team of experts in a hospital setting then you are dead. The New York Organ Donor Network put it best, “There are more tests to establish death done on potential organ donors than there are on people who are not donors.”
There have been several stories circulated about how “Brain Dead” people have recovered and gone on to live normal lives. I have spent the last month looking into these stories and have determined that while one or two are unexplainable primarily because families won’t release medical information all the rest were simply not true.
I have interviewed two world famous neurologists who have written extensively about brain death and who were part of the process that developed the rules for making that determination. The protocols for determining brain death are more rigorous than for proclaiming death under normal circumstances. Every single neurologist, physician or other medical expert I’ve talked with has said the same thing, “No one recovers from brain death!” New protocols were established in 2010 to make the testing even more rigorous and they require the physician who is declaring brain death to fill out a check list to be sure every step has been completed. Again, this process is more rigorous than what is used to declare death under normal conditions.
Here’s the checklist that must be followed in order to declare brain death:
Cause of Brain Death:
Date of Exam: ____________________________
Time of Exam: ____________________________
A. Absence of Confounding Factors: RESULTS
1. Systolic blood pressure > 90 mmHg ______________________
2. Core temperature > 36˚C ______________________
3. Negative for drug intoxication or poisoning _______________________
4. Toxicology results ______________________
5. Negative for neuromuscular blocking agents ______________________
B. Cranial Nerve Reflexes and Responses:
1. No spontaneous muscular movements ______________________
2. Pupils lightfixed
3. Absent corneal reflexes ______________________
4. Unresponsiveness to intensely painful ______________________
stimuli, e.g. supraorbital pressure
5. Absent response to upper and lower ______________________
airway stimulations, e.g. pharyngeal and
6. Absent ocular response to head turning ______________________
(no eye movement)
7. Absent ocular response to irrigation of the ears ______________________
with 100 mls. of ice water (no eye movement)
8. Apnea PaCo2>60 mmHg ______________________
a. PaCo2 at end of apnea test
b. PaO2 at end of apnea test
C. Medical Record Documentation of the above Examination
Certification of Death
Having considered the above findings, we hereby certify the death of:
Physician Signature Printed Name Date/Time
There will always be naysayers and people who “know of people who recovered” but I am satisfied after considerable research that when brain death is declared it is final.
Brain death is never declared by anyone with any connection to organ recovery and transplantation. The transplant team is not even aware of the patient until after brain death has been declared. The physician who declares brain death is independent of the recovery and transplantation team. Physicians who attend to patients on a regular basis are sworn to and legally committed to do everything possible to save your life. They are not part of the transplant team either and in many cases the hospitals where people are declared brain dead don’t even have transplant teams because they are not transplant centers.
To add to theevidence I have offered is this information from Stacey Gelowitz Renal Transplant Coordinator at Alberta Health Services Edmonton, Canada Area Hospital & Health Care. While she is in Canada the American and Canadian processes for declaring brain death are virtually identical. Here’s what she wrote:
“At our center, we define neurological death by two criteria: irreversible loss of the capability for consciousness AND irreversible loss of all brainstem functions (including breathing). The protocol we follow for adult NDD is as follows:
Done twice by 2 physicians independently, who are not associated with transplantation
(1) Deep unresponsive coma with known cause
(2) Absence of confounding factors (eg. alcohol, tricyclic antidepressants)
(3) Temp > 34 degrees C
(4) No brainstem reflexes
a. No motor responses except spinal reflexes
b. No cough
c. No gag
d. No corneal responses bilaterally
e. No vestibulo-ocular responses bilaterally
f. No oculocephalic reflex (Doll’s eyes test; contraindicated in spinal injury)
g. No pupillary response to light bilaterally (pupils 6mm)
h. Apnea test, pH < 7.28 and PaCO2 > 20mmHg above pre-apnea test level
(5) If pt doesn’t meet all above criteria, do ancillary tests to show absence of intracranial blood flow:
a. Radionuclide cerebral blood flow study
b. Cerebral angiography
It can be hard for families to comprehend that their loved one is dead because the heart continues to beat spontaneously and the person is supported by machines so they look asleep. Important to note is that…
* No brain function remains (in contrast to coma/vegetative state).
* Heart continues to beat because of mechanical support stabilizing body, e.g. ventilators. Remember: Sinus rhythm is controlled by cells within the heart (SA/AV nodes), so as long as the heart is being perfused adequately (getting O2 via blood), it is happy to continue beating. Medulla oblongata in brain controls rate and strength of beat, but not basic rhythm).
* Blood still flowing to body organs (heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, pancreas) allowing transplantation if donor family consents, the organs are functioning adequately, and the potential donor has no serious health concerns
It is VERY IMPORTANT that the donor does not have any factors that confound the diagnosis of brain death. I think it is in these circumstances that brain death is (very rarely) wrongly diagnosed. A great website that you can refer to that touches on these ideas: http://www.braindeath.org/clinical.htm. It goes through different confounding factors and why physiologically in their presence brain death cannot be declared.
I have not seen any reports where pts recover from ‘brain death’ and it was not due to one of these confounding factors. We have gotten much better as a medical community at recognizing the suppressive effects of this list and know now not to declare brain death in the their presence. I think where patients extremely rarely slip through that can lead to wrong diagnosis of brain death is in the following two circumstances: (1) pts are on an unknown substance that is not tested for on toxicology panels and suppresses brain stem reflexes. Or, (2) a pt receives a drug in hospital (eg sedative to stop seizures or allow intubation) and the pt metabolizes the drug extremely slowly. The latter example (slow drug metabolism) is more applicable to children/babies rather than adults, but can happen in both (here is a case study from our center describing just that: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19818943). As a result, the time in which brain death is declared was extended.
People need to understand that these instances are incredibly rare. If there is any doubt that one of these confounding factors is contributing to a wrong diagnosis of brain death, another tox screen or temp etc can be done to rule out such factors. Take a look at the cases people are presenting on reversible brain death. I would bet that all fall under what is discussed above. That said, some people will still stick to their guns and not believe you no matter how much info is provided, and that’s okay too”
If anyone needs more information that I have provided here I suggest you contact a neurologist at your nearest transplant center and ask him or her. If you still doubt the process then perhaps you should not be a donor.
Bob Aronson is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s 1700 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the writer of most of these donation/transplantation blogs on Bob’s Newheart.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on http://www.organti.org This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.
If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have a PowerPoint slide show for your use free and for use without permission. Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show, it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound.
Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.