Why Use Life Support on Brain Dead Patients?

By on January 13, 2014
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Every few years a new case involving life support creates controversy in the media.  About a decade ago, Terri Schiavo’s story had thousands of people riled up, wanting to “save her life” and stopping her husband from “murdering” her.  What people did not seem to care about was the fact that this woman had been in persistent vegetative state (PVS) for fifteen years when she was finally pulled off of life support.  Her family clung to a sliver of hope that she would awaken.  Today, the controversy surrounds Jahi McMath, a thirteen-year-old girl who had complications in a tonsil surgery and was declared brain dead by doctors on December 13.

A simple definition in the medical field should eliminate all the controversy present in these cases.  A person is considered medically dead (according to the Harvard death criteria used almost unanimously by physicians) when his or her brain activity ceases.  In fact, when someone becomes brain dead in a hospital, his or her organs are salvaged if the person has previously elected to be an organ donor.  If doctors were to wait until the person’s heart stopped beating, they would not be able to use any of the organs because they would no longer be transplantable.

Being brain dead is different from being in persistent vegetative state.  When someone is in PVS, the brain can still carry out basic functions.  The brain stem, which is seen as the most primitive part of the brain, continues to function, meaning the person can still have a beating heart and appear to be breathing.  Some patients have been able to recover from PVS.  However, the damage to a brain dead person is irreversible and any hope of recovery is gone.

From the medical perspective, it seems apparent that life support should be cut off for brain dead and some PVS patients who have been in this state for several years.  However, their families hold on to any hope that their loved ones may recover.  Sadly, these stories are the ones that end up on CNN and the cover of The New York Times, causing huge public uproar.  What most people do not realize is that keeping these patients alive is not only fruitless but also a giant waste of resources that could be used on patients who actually have a chance of survival.  The quantity of life for brain-dead or PVS patients may be extended, but their quality of life is nonexistent.  In fact, the only thing left is the physical body; the mind no longer exists.  These patients are unable to perceive their surroundings or create new memories.  They are simply lying in a hospital room, for the rest of their lives, kept alive with a ventilator and feeding tube.

In the case of Jahi McMath, it is clear that her family and friends should get the closure of her death while they still can.  Keeping her alive on machines is only going to give them false hope and prevent them from being able to move forward with their lives.  They will wake up every day hoping for some good news from physicians that simply is not coming.  No one wants to say good-bye to a loved one, but in some cases it is truly the best thing they can do for themselves.

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  • gnosticmike

    I am for the consumer in this case, advocating for the patient. However, the resources to sustain a person in this type of PVS state should be minimal for the hospital and most of the resources should be placed on the consumer. The reason being is that the hospital is there to treat, repair, replace, or take care of patients who are in most need of care and who have the highest chance of survival and release. That being said, I would want my brain (and brain stem and nervous system) to be on life support until proper arrangements have been made to put my nervous system in cryogenics. The rest of my body can be donated to science.

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