Over the last two months we have seen the media focus on two high-profile cases of young women being kept alive through the use of medical technology. The heartbreaking stories of Jahi McMath, a 13 year old girl declared brain dead after surgery to remove her tonsils and adenoids, and Marlise Munoz, a 33 year old mother pregnant with her second child and declared brain dead after collapsing on her kitchen floor in the middle of the night, have brought up interesting moral, legal, and ethical issues.
Dr. Larry Kessler, of ER-DOX, discusses these issues in his book “We All Die Once.” We seem to sometimes fall under the spell that life can be prolonged indefinitely. Unfortunately, we all must die and the best we can hope for is that we be allowed to pass gracefully and with dignity.
The issues raised by these two cases specifically involve the term “brain death.” Laymen sometimes equate that term with “coma” or “persistent vegetative state” – two other terms often heard in the news when the case of Terry Schiavo was making headlines. However, brain dead is wholly different from those two terms. Most people equate death with the stopping of the heart, and don’t realize that the cessation of brain function is a legal definition for death. Because machines are capable of keeping one’s lungs and heart functioning, the illusion of life is preserved. The reality is that someone declared brain dead will not recover and will not “live” in any sense of the term, and that is a painful thing for family members and loved ones to accept. While the family of Ms. Munoz petitioned the court to order the hospital to remove life support, the family of Ms. McMath petitioned the court to order the hospital to keep life support going.
What we can all learn from these cases is to think about how each of us wants to face our death, should it come in the form of terminal illness or catastrophic injury. Be sure to make your wishes known to family and loved ones. Don’t shy away from discussing end of life care. In the end, and the end comes for all of us, it could save your family and loved ones from anguish and indecision.
Be sure to check out Dr. Kessler’s “We All Die Once” Facebook page here!
The information provided on our blog is not meant to replace the care or guidance of your medical provider. If you have specific questions please call or see your professional health care provider.