How Dead Is Dead? -Part Two

Posted: April 4, 2012 in Current Events, politics, Statistics and Lies

Several weeks ago I posted an entry which suggested that he criteria for medical death may be somewhat ambiguous and may be inappropriately influenced by the circumstances around organ harvesting from donors.  The article suggested that the criteria may be expedient to facilitate organ harvesting, simplifying the standards for “death” and possibly ignoring some of the more complex issues which may be involved.

In idle speculation I also added a theory which involved life after death being at least partly the result of brain activity in the dying moments of an individual, when cerebral processes struggle to make sense of death and may launch the dying person into a near death (or even post death) dream-like state.  Yes, pure speculation on my part, but not contrary to the existing evidence and within the realm of scientific possibility.

My favorite skeptic responded predictably in the comments with:

Sounds like a bunch of quackery sprinkled with real science. All pain is, is a bunch if neurons during image brain. If our brain is dead there us no way for any pain to exist.

Now, Discover Magazine has published a feature article on this subject titled “The Beating Heart Donors”.  Organ transplants are now a $20 billion per year business.  The doctors, the pharmaceutical companies and the hospitals all make a fortune on this business.  As the article points out, the only person who doesn’t is the donors or their families.  The argument is that “…Donors must not be paid, in order to maintain the integrity of the field.”  This is an interesting comment, strongly linking financial benefit and the compromise of integrity in this situation.  What does that tell you about the $20 billion business?

The article goes on to list a long set of anecdotal stories and professional objections to the apparent rush to pronounce a body dead and the likelihood that the seemingly dead bodies, capable of doing everything from getting goose bumps to being sexually aroused to gestating a fetus, may only be “mostly dead” and still capable of sensation.

I don’t think this is “quackery”, especially when anesthesiologists who are the medical experts in consciousness, are among those most vocal about the problem.  I think that we don’t really know a lot about brain death, never mind death itself.  If my little speculation about a dream finale while dying is accurate, might that dream not turn into a nightmare while the body is still aware of having chunks cut out if it without the use of any pain killers.  (Good idea for a novel or a movie.)

Donating organs is an important new frontier in medical treatment, and my goal here is not to try to discourage donors or hamstring the process.  However, it is a frontier, and as such it involves a complexity, both on physical and ethical levels, which requires careful examination.  It’s too easy to define brain death in a way that serves a $20 billion industry.  If there is any dissent, -and on this issue there seems to be lots-, it needs to be treated with the utmost of seriousness and careful examination.

The article in question is not posted on the Internet yet.  Discover magazine will often post articles from previous issues some time down the line.  This article will likely appear some time in the near future.  It’s scary.  I would hope that “skepticism” would want to question the status quo, especially when it’s tied to a $20 billion vested interest.

  1. Mike Souter says:

    Sure organ transplantation costs money. But you might as well say that health care costs 2.6 trillion (true figure BTW) so discount everything physicians and nurses tell you, as they have a vested interest…
    I’m an anesthesiologist , who also looks after brain injured patients in ICU and have declared brain death many many times. I’m also involved in organ donation – educating and teaching the standards of consciousness and brain death. THere’s a lot of inaccuracies, illogical links and general poor quality journalism in here that does not stand up to in depth scrutiny. There are ‘anecdotes’ as you say – but that’s all they are. The physician dissenters – I know a few of them – support their views with logical fallacies and misinterpretation. I’ve yet to hear one present a logical and reasoned argument that is factually correct. There’s actually a lot of science on this. Look up Christopher Pallis, Calixto Machado , or Eelco Wijdicks – all of whom have published on this.
    Why am i bothering to write this (and I make no money out of what I do in organ donation BTW) – because people die, and that’s sad – but unavoidable often. And when it happens, then we should take the opportunity to save lives – and 18 people die a day waiting for a transplant.
    I have a signed donor card in my wallet. My will and advance directive are clear.
    Honestly – read more about this – in genuine science if you are interested – as opposed to the news stand…

  2. pwiinholt says:

    I appreciate and respect your views on this, especially considering that you have the profesional expertise. I certainly don’t want to deter organ donation. I too have a donator card and encourage the practice. I just felt that if there were any doubts, significant research should be done. You claim that it has been done, and I will look into it.

    However, that brings up a very big issue. I have explored the profesional and scientific writing on several subjects, namely the side effects of Crestor and the role of fat in producing cholesterol. It can take days to do that kind of research. and very often you find just as many contradictory or poorly substantiated facts. Most people don’t have the patience or (honestly) the ability to do that kind of research, but having done so, I still have been unsatisfied in the results. Regarding the contraversy around Crestor side effects, I ended up trusting the advice of several close friends, even after spending days reading the material, which was inconclusive.

    It is almost impossible for the layman to do the real “scientific” investigation rather than “the news stand”. It’s not realistic to expect it to happen, so be kind to those of us who are taking an interest rather than following blindly. We rely on people like you to enlighten us. You have to admit that both the medical and parmaceutical fields have not engendered a lot of confidence.

    Personally, I’m grateful to have had few first hand experiences in hospitals. I have to say, however, that the ones I have had did not bolster my confidence in the medical community. Hell, the ambulance that took me to the hospital got lost on the way, and that was only the beginning. I think that our skepticism is warrented.

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