Brain Dead: A Tale of Two Women

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What does being dead really mean these days?

Two women are currently in the news with headlines asking the question: “Should they be kept alive?” Meanwhile, they both were declared dead, weeks ago.

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The cases of Jahi McMath, 13 and Marlise Munoz, 33 have caused quite the stir in their respective states of California and Texas. Two different situations, two different requests, two lawsuits, and several ethical questions.

Dead or not dead isn’t exactly a question often discussed, because it seems rather cut and dry. The man Jesus Christ, was pronounced dead for three days before arising and setting a precedence that world religions are based around but even He didn’t exactly pick up where He left off in living. He didn’t hang out and start preaching again, He rose and then left the planet.

Temporary deaths are not as uncommon as you’d think.

Near death experiences, or “temporary deaths,” have practically become a common place because of the number of people who’ve reportedly experienced them. Slews of people have, “come back from the dead,” so to speak, and they do proceed to continue living.  The BIG DIFFERENCE is that they were declared dead only momentarily. (We’re talking seconds, maybe minutes here.)

In the most recent cases of McMath and Munoz, these are two women who were brain 2declared brain dead. Brain death is a legal definition and in the US is determined by the state under specific state created guidelines. The American Academy of Neurology published a guideline on brain death that instructs the criteria to go by. In both of these situations, doctors performed the guideline instructed tests and came to the same conclusions. They were dead.

The McMath family in California truly believe in their heart that their daughter’s brain dead body just needs time to recover. The hospital would like them to accept this and remove her from support. It’s easy to see her family as selfish and unwilling to accept reality, but when reality includes Zack Dunlap, who in 2007, experienced a severe head trauma after a 4-wheel off-road biking accident, and after 36 hours passed a confirmatory test revealing a lack of blood flow to the brain (A key determinate in declaring someone brain dead), moved his foot on his own a mere four hours after later. (Practically on the operating table scheduled to harvest his organs!) He did fully recover.  If we look to his case, then what are we to think?

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The Munoz family doesn’t share the same belief as the McMath’s. They accept her death as final. And even though she is pregnant, they are not interested in finding out if a deceased pregnant woman can give birth. It’s easy to look at them as uncaring – because shouldn’t they want to try to save the unborn child? (Even though she still has a significant length of time left in her pregnancy.) In their case, the hospital intends to continue her life. They want to uphold the laws that supersede death of a mother when a child is still growing inside her. Munoz’s rights have “passed”, but according to the law – the rights of her unborn child have not.

Can a woman give birth, essentially post mortem? The answer is yes.

It’s occurred several times actually. The Munoz family is the first to NOT want to pursue the birth though, regardless of the fact that there are solid examples of doctors doing this well, and with good results.

  •  In England there’s a girl named “Aya” who was born two days after her mother was confirmed brain dead. Her mother a 41 year old former figure skating champion, who at 25 weeks pregnant suffered a massive hemorrhage caused by an unknown aggressive brain tumor, had her heart artificially kept beating for 48 hours until doctors could remove her child.
  •  Then there’s the 26-year-old woman of Grand Rapids, Michigan who after being declared brain dead from two aneurysms, weeks later delivered twin boys at 25 weeks.
  • In Hungary a 31 year old woman suffered a sudden cerebral hemorrhage and two days and declared officially brain dead. The family decided to keep her key on life support for the sake of the 15-week-old fetus growing inside her and three months later the baby boy was born to a brain-dead mother at 27 weeks.

(Furthermore, four patients received organ transplants from her body. )

  • Susan Anne Catherine Torres of Virginia, was pronounced brain dead in 2005, the result of a cancerous tumor at 15 weeks pregnant, and was also kept on life support for three months. Her premature and how birth weight child, though born alive, died a mere six weeks later.
  • Back in 1993, 28 year old, northern California resident, Trisha Marshall’s child was brought into the world at 32-weeks-old, with no complications, as a result of her being on life sustaining ventilators since her own pronounced brain death 104 days prior., and this length of time was apparently, just shy of a 1989 record set by a brain-dead woman in Vermont.

(Marshall actually died as a result of gunshot wound to the head while attempting to rob an amputee. She had a meat clever, he had a gun.)

In the instance of Marshall it launched a heated debate because the hospital she lie at was facing a budget deficit and the deceased was uninsured. Doctors refused to halt treatment over money and afterwards the doctors declined to say who paid the estimated $200,000, bill.

Speaking of bills, giving birth is not cheap. Keeping someone on life support is not cheap. There’s nothing cheap about any hospital visit period. Not that payment should or shouldn’t justify treatment, but who would be responsible for footing the bill? Should the hospital that is going against the end of life wishes of Marlise Munoz be held financially responsible for the costs that are sure to amount to several hundred thousand dollars? And on the flipside, it’s doubtful that any insurance would consider covering the price tag Jahi McMath’s family has racked up, because they are going against medical advice.

So many questions…not enough cut and dry answers.

Other articles of interest:

The Atlantic: Nobody Declared Brain Dead Ever Wakes Up Feeling Pretty Good

The New York Times: Brain-Dead Florida Girl Will Be Sent Home on Life Support


Writer and curator of interesting12, Maggie is a DC based writer with a heart for nonprofits, a passion for complicated people, and lover of all things well designed and well said. This former longtime LA resident is a firm believer we should be challenging ourselves to discuss what affect us in this world and how. She’s opinionated, a teller of both sides of the story, and some say she’s clever.