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Anesthesiology. 1999 Jul;91(1):275-87.

A matter of life and death: what every anesthesiologist should know about the medical, legal, and ethical aspects of declaring brain death.

Author information

1
Department of Anesthesiology, University of Washington, Seattle 98195, USA. gvn@u.washington.edu

Abstract

Accurate criteria for death are increasingly important as it becomes more difficult for the public to distinguish between patients who are still alive from those who, through the aid of medical technology, merely look like they are alive even though they are dead. Patients and their families need to know that a clear line can be drawn between life and death, and that patients who are alive will not be unintentionally treated as though they are dead. For the public to trust the pronouncements of medical doctors as to whether a patient is dead or alive, the criteria must be unambiguous, understandable, and infallible. It is equally important to physicians that accurate, infallible criteria define death. Physicians need to know that a clear line can be drawn between life and death so that patients who are dead are not treated as though they are alive. Such criteria enable us to terminate expensive medical care to corpses. Clear criteria for death also allow us to ethically request the gift of vital organs. Clear, infallible criteria allow us to assure families and society that one living person will not be intentionally or unintentionally killed for the sake of another. The pressure of organ scarcity must not lead physicians to allow the criteria for life and death to become blurred because of the irreparable harm this would cause to the patient-physician relationship and the devastating impact it could have on organ transplantation. As the cases presented here illustrate, anesthesiologists have an important responsibility in the process of assuring that some living patients are not sacrificed to benefit others. Criteria for declaring death should be familiar to every anesthesiologist participating in organ retrieval. Before accepting the responsibility of maintaining a donor for vital organ collection, the anesthesiologist should review data supplied in the chart supporting the diagnosis of brain death and seriously question inconsistencies and inadequate testing conditions. Knowledge of brain death criteria and proper application of these criteria could have changed the course of each of the cases presented.

PMID:
10422953
[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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