There has been discussion about the definition of death in the news lately. My last blog was about the medical definition of death, but what about the human dimension of death?
Last week I described how doctors use brain wave detection and reflex tests to determine which patients are dead. Despite all the scientific evidence, it’s still hard to pull the plug. My cousin died while on life support and as someone who was in the huddle with my aunt and uncle, I know it’s hard to believe a medical test when you‘re looking at a person who is warm and seems to be sleeping, in spite of tubes and wires of life support.
In the case of my cousin, my aunt and uncle were told he was going to get better. He took a sudden turn for the worse and it took an extra day for them to accept his death and pull the plug.
It’s also difficult because under stress and grief we may not understand what life support is. I read a comment on another blog,
“It’s called life support for a reason. If you pull the plug you’re ending your loved one’s life.”
But a little research reveals that another definition is in order. When doctors determine there is no brain function, they re-term the machines “support.”
Others have religious objections to pulling the plug. Is a miracle coming? If a lifesaving technology is available, is it God’s will you use it on your loved one, even if doctors say it’s over?
Some interpretations of Jewish law define death as the ceasing of the heart and lungs. In 2008, twelve-year-old Motyl Brody was diagnosed with brain cancer. After six months of treatment he worsened and was placed on life support. His brain finally ceased, yet a ventilator and drugs ran his heart and lungs. Medical staff at the children’s hospital wished to end the futile treatment and make room for other children, but Motyl’s family refused. They believed pulling the plug was murder.
Just as in the recent Jahi McMath Case, the court was gearing up to decide Motyl’s fate, but thirteen days after being declared dead, his body deteriorated so far that his heart stopped. Was it unethical for the Brody’s to continue their son’s treatment? Could it be equally unethical for a court to force a family to disregard their beliefs?
Most families end treatment after their loved ones are declared brain dead. They recognize someone else will need the hospital bed, and organ donation is only possible when the donor dies on life support and their bodies have not deteriorated from being on support too long. Regardless of what families choose, those on support usually dwindle away into heart failure in a matter of days to weeks, in rare cases months or years. The brain commands the subtleties of maintaining life that doctors cannot easily duplicate. In the end, we lose the battle to define death for ourselves, and it comes anyway.