Four years ago I wrote a post entitled “When Death Is Not Death: Stumbling Over the Parameters of “Brain Dead” about brain death and other medical-intellectual curiosities. Turns out that one of the young women whose “brain dead” status I described is still. . . not dead, er… rather alive. Alive for some people, seems to mean “brain dead” for others! I read with interest Rachel Aviv’s Feb. 5, 2018 New Yorker article about Jahi McMath, the teenager who suffered complications from a December 9, 2013 tonsillectomy at an Oakland, California hospital. Some of the story is about our “health care system” and its values – about whose life matters, what condition of life passes for death. The biggest challenge I see for all of us and this predicament we find ourselves in with health care in this country – is the dogma of the medical-industrial complex and its insistence on getting everyone “in line” about what passes for death and training us to simply not question the information we are given by the professionals reading the diagnostic screens.
Acting “As If” Death Had a Clear Legal and Medical Definition
To the extent we privilege the measurement of brain activity as a measure of our consciousness, as an indicator of the proof of our existence, we deny the underlying philosophical problem of defining or delimiting life and death (and consciousness). Our present obsession with the measurable quantification of our biological activities is a major component of our current health care system. We love the pictures of our insides and their operations in “real time.” As long as we continue to collectively pretend that one’s existence can be verified by a particular type of brain scan, we will remain in denial.
But that denial is often a safe place, based on the “safety in numbers” type of thinking and as a result of the unquestioned power that doctors have and wield over us with their technocratic medical delivery system.
The Audacity to Think – or Rather Believe – That Our Technology Alone Can Be Used as a Means of Extending Someone’s Life by Prolonging Rudimentary Bodily Functions.
I talk to many people who confuse life support with extending one’s life and also with prolonging the dying process.
How do we tell the difference? Why, ask the doctors!
Can I be kept alive indefinitely against my will? I haven’t heard that question yet, but I suspect there are versions of it being asked. I am not comfortable handing over my authority to a health care provider who refuses to consider (let alone struggle with) the bigger questions about life – and death.
At a fundamental level, Jahi McMath’s story is about her family members who simply refused to believe what they were being told by the doctors.
One of the neurologists who examined Jahi McMath was the recently retired chief of neurology at Olive View – UCLA Medical Center. Dr. D. Alan Shewmon was no stranger to cases where patients – many of them children or youths, survived for months or years after being declared brain dead by the medical establishment. You can read his 1997 article “Recovering from Brain Death: A Neurologist’s Apologia” here.
No answers in this post, only questions. How far does the death taboo extend to our thinking or believing (which are often indistinguishable) about what passes for life? In our brain-obsessed culture that is fascinated with measurements and arriving at the quantifiable, where does the subjective and mysterious show up – or is it simply banished and its existence denied?
© 2018 Barbara Cashman www.DenverElderLaw.org