Although people often joke about someone being “braindead,” the reality is no laughing matter. Brain Death is described as the total and irreversible loss of all brain function and the circumstance under which the donation of vital organs most commonly takes place. Another, more detailed definition is:
“There is only one kind of death — when one is dead, one is dead — but death can be determined in the two different ways described in the law. A braindead individual who is warm and pink with heart beating and lungs ventilating is just as dead, legally, as an individual whose body has turned cold after the heart has permanently stopped beating.”
The official definition, called the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA), as of 1981. It has since been codified into law in every state:
An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.
The definitions of death outlined in UDDA apply to several legal situations across myriad legal practice areas:
- Organ Donation
The Dept. of Health & Human Services explains the importance of maintaining organs and tissues for donation. The final declaration of brain death streamlines the process by eliminating ambiguity.
- Criminal Cases
The law requires an authorized agent to legally declare death before prosecutors bring homicide charges against a defendant.
- Tort Actions
A declaration of death must proceed wrongful death lawsuits and other survivors’ legal options.
- Estate Law
Without officially declaring death, benefactors could lose their inheritance.
- Life Insurance
Since a braindead individual cannot provide for his or her family, the finality of death allows disbursement of life insurance funds.
Brain Death vs Permanent Vegetative State
For good or for worse, ventilators, feeding tubes, and other medical technologies prolong the lives of people with severe brain injuries. However, laws do not always keep pace with medical advances. For example, at what point is an individual actually dead? The varying types of severe brain injuries raise difficult questions along the spectrum of persistent vegetative state and brain death.
Pulling the Plug
Healthcare practitioners may keep brain dead individuals on life support until family members agree to withdraw technological support (aka “pulling the plug.”) In fact, someone in a persistent vegetative state (often referred to as “chronic wakefulness without awareness”) may not be allowed to pass naturally if they failed to prepare an advanced directive or execute a living will. Often adding to the urgency and stress of the decision families face is the fact that surgeons must act quickly in order to harvest usable tissues from organ donors.
What to Do if Your Loved One is Declared Brain Dead
Family members and friends face a heartbreaking dilemma when their loved one is placed on life support. Even so, recognizing this transition from life to death is critical for families, the medical team, and potential organ recipients. Although there are no easy answers, these six questions may help you decide:
- Is the patient dead?
If the brain is dead, the patient is dead, even though life-support machinery may be keeping the body breathing and pumping blood.
- Is recovery possible?
There are some situations where no medical intervention can reverse the damage to vital organs. No matter what is done, the patient will worsen and die.
- Is the decision reversible?
This applies mainly to providing life-sustaining services. In many states, once a feeding tube is inserted, it cannot be removed until death comes by some cause other than malnourishment.
- Is the patient suffering?
Many patients on life support are in deep comas, a twilight state where they experience neither pleasure nor pain. But there are some conditions where they are conscious.
- Who is this about?
The survivors’ grief and fear often influence the decision of when to end life support. Try to consider what’s best for your loved one rather than for you.
- What do doctors say?
Although medical personnel are as fallible as the rest of humanity, they do have expertise, experience and perspective. Lean on them if you’re unsure. When you experience the end-of-life for someone you love, pain is an unfortunate inevitability. But if you rely on doctors to help make an informed decision, you will be able to rest in the knowledge you are acting in your loved one’s best interests.
About Foothill Funeral & Cremation Services in Glendora, California
When the time comes, if you so desire, we would value the opportunity to help you pre-plan for yourself or a family member or friend. Feel free to contact us now to pre-plan your own memorial or at your time of need (626) 335-0615. We would be happy to discuss your plans on the phone, via email or by text during the Coronavirus pandemic. Our relationship with United Methodist Church and Sacred Heart provide great places for mourners to host funerals and memorials. So, once the lockdown orders are reversed, you will love the grandiose yet intimate settings in both locations.