The recent story of Oakland area teenager Jahi McMath, as well as the story of Marlise Munoz, has once again focused media attention on the concept of brain death. When it comes to creating an estate plan, and especially an incapacity plan, brain death is a key concept. Unfortunately, it is also a concept that not a lot of people understand very well. Few of us have any training in medical terminology and treatment, so taking the time to study terms such as brain death is essential if we want to make knowledgeable choices.
To better understand the concept of brain death, it might be useful to look at it, and the idea of death in general, by using a metaphor. Viewed in one way, humans are brains piloting their bodies. Our brains allow us to do everything from thinking, planning, and experiencing emotions, to allowing our hearts to beat, our lungs to breathe, and our muscles to move. Without our brains our bodies would not function.
Our brains are comprised of many different sections. These sections influence different areas of our bodies, as well as different aspects of our personality and our minds. In some situations, a person who suffers brain damage might have no observable physical or psychological changes, while someone else might show a drastic change. Our brains are very complicated, and understanding how they work, and why, is key when we talk about issues like brain death.
Coma, Persistent Vegetative State, and Brain Death
We can look at brain death as a part of a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum there is the coma. A coma is a prolonged period of unconsciousness that resembles sleep. Most comas do not last more than a couple of days or weeks, and those suffering them can emerge from this unconscious period completely unharmed and showing no permanent damage.
Other comments are more severe, and can lead to what is known as a persistent vegetative state, or PVS. Someone in a persistent vegetative state shows no brain activity in the areas of the brain responsible for thought, though the portions that control bodily functions are still active. Although it is rare, some people do recover from PVS.
Beyond PVS there is brain death. With brain death, a person’s brain no longer has the ability to keep the body functioning. Even though the body might still be able to maintain a heartbeat or lung functions with the aid of machines, there is no brain activity at all.
Understanding brain death is essential in the incapacity planning process. If you’d like more information about brain death and other physiological states, talk to your physician for medical advice.