Recently I read the detailed account of what has happened with Jahi McMath, titled “What Does It Mean to Die?” in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. It made me reassess what I think about the concept of brain death. Four years ago, Jahi McMath was a thirteen-year-old African American girl who had a tonsillectomy to treat severe sleep apnea. She had a cardiac arrest due to postoperative bleeding with a prolonged 2.5-hour resuscitation and ended up on a ventilator. She was later determined to meet the criteria for brain death, but her family refused to allow her to be taken off the ventilator. They had serious concerns that she had not received the care she should have received prior to her arrest and had little confidence in the doctors or hospital that were telling them that she was dead. Four years later her vital functions continue to be maintained on a ventilator and some medical experts are convinced that she no longer meets brain death criteria and may be in a minimally conscious state.
When I think about the concept of brain death, what is important in accepting it as a valid way to determine that a person is dead is that brain death involves both loss of function of the entire brain including the brain stem and that the loss of function is irreversible. Accepting that loss of cognitive function alone could define death puts anyone with impaired cognitive function at risk of being treated as if they were dead. Loss of brain stem function is more closely related to the functions of the brain that keep us alive and fit better with the determination of death. However, it is critical that this loss of entire brain function is irreversible. We do not consider a person in cardiac arrest who is able to be resuscitated to be dead, because that person’s loss of heart and lung function is reversible. This case calls into question whether we are able to determine that loss of complete brain function is irreversible.
It appears to be quite possible that this girl who was diagnosed as being brain dead did not have the irreversible loss of complete brain function that is essential for the definition of brain death. It is recognized that the criteria for diagnosing brain death are different in children and adults and that the diagnosis may be more difficult to make in children. Her case leaves us with some significant questions. Are the criteria that we have for determining a diagnosis of brain death accurate enough in predicting the irreversibility of loss of whole brain function to be reliable in making the diagnosis? Do we need absolute certainty in diagnosing brain death? Every decision we make in medicine involves some uncertainty. Diagnoses are seldom absolute. We make life or death decisions with limited information. People die due to inaccurate diagnoses even when everything has been done properly and the diagnosis has been made with all due care. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we are wrong. Is diagnosing brain death any different from other life or death decisions we make? How much inaccuracy can we accept in the diagnosis of brain death?