In recent weeks we’ve written about the Marlise Munoz story and how it has caused many people to think about questions involving brain death, incapacity planning, and making advance medical directives. Yet these types of issues can require us to educate ourselves. Understanding, for example, what brain death means and how different parts of the brain affect our bodies is necessary if you want to make knowledgeable medical choices. To help clear up some potential confusion, let’s take a closer look at what brain death is and how it might affect your medical decisions.
Brains, Parts of the Brain, and Brain Death
Our brains are the most complicated organs in our bodies, and are comprised of many different areas. Some of these areas serve very different function than others. For example, the areas of the brain that allow you to think, feel, dream, and have a personality are very different than those that control the beating of your heart or the breathing of your lungs.
When doctors talk about brain death, they’re talking about the cessation of activity in all areas of the brain. A brain-dead person is someone who no longer shows any brain activity in either the cognitive areas of the brain, or the areas that control physiological processes.
In many brain-dead situations, a person, such as Marlise Munoz, has suffered catastrophic brain damage. In Marlise’s case, this damage resulted from a pulmonary embolism. However, though her brain was no longer functioning, her doctors were able to keep her physiological processes active by the use of medical devices, such as respirators.
Brain Death, Comas, and Choices
To highlight the importance of the concept of brain death, let’s take a look at it in comparison to a coma. When a person is comatose, that person is experiencing a prolonged unconsciousness. Even though a comatose person is not communicating or displaying any cognitive functions, that person still shows brain activity in all areas. People in a coma can recover, stay in a comatose state, or transition into what is called a persistent vegetative state.
A persistent vegetative state is similar to brain death and a coma in that there is activity in some parts of the brain, but no activity in the cognitive areas responsible for thought and emotion. Though it’s very rare, some people in persistent vegetative states recover.
The important point to take away from all of this is that in order to make knowledgeable decisions, you need to understand the types of medical situations you might one day face. Educating yourself, talking to your doctor, and discussing the issues with friends and family is essential if you intend to create an incapacity plan or advance medical directives.