The recent cases of Jahi McMath and Marlise Munoz have caused many people to ask themselves questions about their own medical choices. The cases have both involved brain death and have resulted in legal battles over medical care and decision-making ability.
While these cases might be difficult to discuss, they can be useful to those creating estate or incapacity plans. To make informed medical decisions you need to have a good idea of what terms like brain death mean, and why they’re important.
To better understand brain death and similar terms, you first need a basic understanding of how our brains work. The average brain has about 7 trillion neural connections. It’s also comprised of several different areas. Though there are many individual areas, we can more easily understand the brain by separating it into two parts: the higher brain and the lower brain.
Our lower brains control the unconscious functions of our bodies, such as heart rate, breathing, and sweating. Our higher brains, on the other hand, are responsible for our cognitive functions, feelings, and memories.
When doctors use the term “brain death” they’re talking about a cessation of brain activity in both the higher and lower brain areas. Even though some people with brain death can be placed on medical machines that allow the body’s physiological processes to keep going, their brains are effectively lifeless.
Persistent Vegetative State
A persistent vegetative state, or PVS, is the cessation of brain functions in the higher brain areas. Though the lower brain remains active, the higher brain is devoid of activity. People with PVS cannot think, perceive, or communicate. Though rare, some people with PVS have recovered higher brain function.
Someone in a coma is in a state of unconsciousness, like sleep, from which they cannot be easily roused. Both the higher and lower brains of a person in a coma remain active. Depending on the circumstances, someone in a coma can remain unconscious for days, week, months, or longer. In some situations, doctors will place a person in a comatose state to allow the body to better heal itself or to protect it from further harm.
Once you know the types of medical situations you might one day face, you can create advance medical directives that state your medical choices. You can make whatever choice you desire, and are under no obligation to create an advance directive of any kind.
If you’d like more information about the kinds of medical choices you can make, make an appointment to speak to us, and talk to your doctor for medical advice.