What Is “Brain Death”?

What Is “Brain Death”?One of the worst and tragic outcomes from a serious injury is death. It is hard to imagine anything more difficult and more painful than losing a loved one. We would do anything to have more time with the ones who have passed on. However, there is a phrase that we have all no doubt heard either on TV or in everyday conversations, and that’s “worse than death.” When faced with that sort of reality in life, how can we understand anything that is actually worse than death?

Many families and doctors may argue that if a victim is left without any brain function, where they have no consciousness and no quality of life, that that is worse than death. Not only will you never truly get to interact with the loved one you knew, but you will also have to watch them languish while paying for the expensive tools and medical equipment that are necessary just to keep that person’s body alive. Unlike a coma or vegetative state there is no possibility of waking up from brain death. While certain scientists may be taking steps to try and bring dead brains back to “life,” the consequences of that may outweigh the scientific possibilities.

Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa, a pulmonary and critical care specialist whose work is featured by the New York Times, published an article that talks about the new developments researchers are making in the world of neurological science. Citing a NYT article that details the scientists and their study behind bringing dead pig brains “back to life,” he goes on to discuss this important question: “What if — when this treatment is finally approved for use in human patients — it doesn’t completely reverse the process that leads to brain death? What if, like the pig brains described in the initial research results, the brains are only ‘partly alive’? What effect will this have on the patient?”

Dr. Hassaballa states that when a patient becomes brain dead that it is actually easier on the family than if the patient was in a prolonged vegetative state, or in the state that such (hypothetical) treatment might leave them in. The family might feel less guilt in turning off the artificial life-sustaining machines if there is no hope of their loved one regaining consciousness. If this new treatment is used on humans, and only brings them “partially” back to life, but can no longer move, speak, act, breathe, or eat independently, is that even a life worth living? While there is some activity in the brain, and therefore the patient is not technically dead, they will never be who they once were.

Dr. Hassaballa therefore cautions against this sort of research, and using it on humans (if it gets that far). Doctors and patients need to be very, very careful when considering a procedure such as this.

How is brain death different from a coma or vegetative state?

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the definitions of each condition are as follows:

  • Brain death. Also called death by neurological criteria, brain death is an irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem. A person who is brain dead is dead, with no chance of revival.
  • Coma. A state of profound unresponsiveness as a result of severe illness or brain injury. Patients in a coma do not open their eyes or speak, and they do not exhibit purposeful behaviors. Some patients need ventilators while others do not. Doctors sometimes place patients in medically induced comas to give their brains time to heal. In general, comas last just a few days or weeks. Patients either die or regain consciousness, or in some cases progress to a vegetative state.
  • Vegetative state. The person has depressed consciousness, brain stem function and can breathe without support. Patients in a vegetative state may respond to pain or loud sounds, go through sleep-wake cycles, and exhibit involuntary motions. A person in a vegetative state for more than a year is considered to be in a permanent vegetative state with extremely low chance of recovery.

Perhaps the most crucial difference between a coma/vegetative state and brain death is that when someone is in a coma or vegetative state, there is still the possibility of the patient regaining consciousness. In a brain dead person, there is no possibility of consciousness returning to the patient.

Understanding the financial burden of brain death

While a brain dead person may continue to breathe, and their heart may continue to beat, (with the help of machines) they are legally considered dead.  Still, some families may choose to keep the patient on machines that provide artificial life-support instead of “pulling the plug,” and letting their body match their brain in death. The costs associated with this, however, can be substantial – and are likely not to be covered by insurance, as they are likely deemed “investigational/not clinically proven and, therefore, not medically necessary.

This also holds true if your loved one was an organ donor, and you choose to keep them on life support in accordance with their wishes. The cost of life support in this case will also fall to you.

Along with the costs of medical care (both from the accident as well as life support costs) may also come a loss of income and benefits. Single parents may need to find additional money for childcare, or for funeral and burial once their loved one is removed. Add all of this to the grief and pain they are suffering, and you can see how the financial burden of brain death can be far more extensive than one might think.

What causes TBIs that can lead to brain death?

The most common way to suffer brain death is due to traumatic brain injury (TBI). A TBI occurs when your head hits, or is hit by, an object at force. This causes the brain to jostle violently inside the skull, causing bruising, swelling, abrasions, and possibly internal bleeding (intracranial hemorrhage).

There are several causes of TBIs, and some of those include:

  • Automobile accident
  • Medical malpractice
  • Construction site accidents
  • Falls
  • Falling objects

In any of these causes, the true initial cause may be someone’s negligence. A distracted driver, a negligent doctor, a hazardous work environment, or faulty equipment or tools can all lead to a person sustaining a life-ending brain injury. When negligence is to blame, a Kennewick personal injury attorney from our firm can help you.

If there’s anything worse than death, brain death just might be that. It hurts those who are left behind to see their loved one breathing only with the help of a machine, and hearing the heart-monitor beeping with their artificial heartbeat. It is no easy thing, and we sympathize with everyone in this tragic situation. While there is little comfort during such a time, we at Telaré Law want to help where we can. Let us handle the legal work of ensuring that you are compensated for this tragedy that someone else’s negligence caused. Nothing can bring your loved one back, but there are ways you can make moving on a little easier. To schedule a free consultation, call us at 509-737-8500 or use our contact page. If we don’t win, you don’t pay. Our offices are located in Kennewick and Richland, and we proudly serve the communities of Pasco, Walla Walla, the Tri-Cities, and all of Southeast Washington.