Defining Life and Death

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Defining Life and Death

The current definitions of life and death are based on both cardiac function and brain function. When whole brain death is diagnosed or the heart stops beating, death may be pronounced. These definitions have been discussed widely in the media over the past few months due to widely publicized cases involving brain dead patients. Life is not as explicitly defined as death. Life essentially is defined as lacking the criteria for death, from a medical standpoint.

Brain death is determined through multiple tests that determine if there is whole brain death or if there is limited brain function. An electroencephalography (EEG) test will be done to determine if there is any electrical activity in the brain. Typically the EEG is performed twice, 24 hours apart. The doctors will test the cranial nerves. The cranial nerves are tested by attempting to stimulate the eye, back of the throat and the ear. And then they will perform an apnea test, where carbon dioxide flow is increased to observe if the patient begins to wheeze. Doctors will also test to see if blood flow to the brain has ceased.

There are many myths about brain death. One of the biggest myths is that brain death is determined to benefit organ transplant programs, however this is false. Organ donation has multiple regulations that must be followed. Recipient patients are on a waiting list and the donor must be a blood and tissue match. Using brain death as criteria in determining that a person has died became the standard in 1968 (Machado). Yet, this criterion was the result of decades of research and clinical observation of patients who had suffered cardiac arrest and/or severe head trauma (Machado). Another myth is that some people believe that death...

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2. Machado, Calixto, et al. “The concept of brain death did not evolve to benefit organ transplants.” Journal of Medical Ethics. 33.4 (2007): 197-200. Web. 18 February 2014.

3. Wade, Derick T., and Claire Johnston. “The permanent vegetative state: practical guidance on diagnosis and management”. British Medical Journal. 319.7213: 841–844. Web. 18 February 2014.

4. Mass Casualties: Glasgow Coma Scale. Center of Disease Control. 9 May 2003. Web. 19 February 2014.

5. Goodwyn, Wade. “The Strange Case Of Marlise Munoz and John Peter Smith Hospital”. National Public Radio. 28, January 2014. Web. 19 February 2014.

6. Singh, Maavi. “Why Hospitals And Families Still Struggle To Define Death”. National Public Radio. 10 January 2014. Web. 19 February 2014.

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