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What is Brain Death?

Most deceased organ donation cases occur after the patient has been declared brain dead. Brain death can be confusing, especially for families who are confronted with the sudden loss of a loved one

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When loss is due to brain death, it can make a devastating experience even more difficult and possibly confusing.

The concept of brain death can be difficult to understand. You may find yourself having questions about brain death even long after your loved one has given the gift of life.

Below is some information to help explain the specifics of brain death.

What is brain death?

Brain death is the complete and irreversible end to all brain function. It means the brain has stopped working. It is impossible to restore a brain that has died.

When a person’s brain dies he or she cannot think, breathe or feel. There is no chance of recovery. The patient is clinically and legally dead.

What causes brain death?

Brain death is caused by traumatic brain injury, a stroke due to an aneurism, or lack of oxygen to the brain for an extended period of time. Brain tumors, drug overdoses, poisoning and high blood pressure can also lead to brain death.

How is the determination made that my loved one is brain dead?

Doctors conduct a series of tests to determine brain death. This includes checking for brain activity and seeing whether a heartbeat can be maintained without a ventilator, which is a machine that facilitates artificial respiration.

Other organs, such as the heart, liver and kidneys can still work while your loved one is on a ventilator. Even so, if there is no brain activity your loved one is declared dead.

How do I know the doctors did not make a mistake in the diagnosis?

Declaring someone brain dead involves no subjective or arbitrary judgments. Brain death is a clinical, measurable condition.

You can ask your doctor to explain how brain death was determined for your loved one.

Can someone who is brain dead feel pain?

No. Once brain activity stops, all sensations cease. There is no feeling of pain or suffering.

If my loved one is dead, why does the heart still beat?

The heart can continue to work if it is supplied with oxygen. When your loved one is put on a ventilator it can provide enough oxygen to maintain blood flow and keep the heart beating for several hours.

The ventilator fills the lungs with air and the body may feel warm to the touch. Certain reflexes and muscle contractions are also possible. But, without the artificial assistance, the heart stops beating and the person is dead.

How is brain death different from being in a coma?

A patient in a coma continues to have brain function. When brain death happens, all neurological activity stops and cannot be revived. Brain death is death – no improvement or recovery is possible.

How can I learn more about brain death?

If you have additional questions about brain death, talk to your doctor, or contact your Gift of Life coordinator.