By Hilary White - Rome correspondent
ROME, February 25, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) - One of the medical world’s key diagnostic tools for determining "brain death" preliminary to organ retrieval, actually causes severe brain damage it purports to determine, neurologist Dr. Cicero Coimbra told attendees at a conference held in Rome last week. With the so-called "apnoea test," Coimbra said, brain damaged patients who might be recoverable are deprived of oxygen for up to ten minutes, rendering the injuries to the brain irreversible.
"Diagnostic protocols for brain death actually induce death in patients who could recover to normal life by receiving timely and scientifically based therapies," Dr. Coimbra, head of the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at the Federal University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, told the participants at the "Signs of Life" conference on "brain death."
Addressing an assembly of about 170 physicians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, students, journalists, and clergy, including two Catholic cardinals, Dr. Coimbra said that it is the apnoea test, routinely applied to patients who have suffered acute brain injuries, that frequently causes "brain necrosis," or permanent and irrecoverable brain damage that is accepted as "brain death".
The test is applied in emergency rooms or ICUs, often with an "organ procurement agent" standing by to ask relatives for approval for organ retrieval. A patient who needs assistance breathing is removed from the ventilator for up to ten minutes, cutting off oxygen to the brain and slowing the heart rate. If the patient fails to begin breathing without assistance after this time, he is declared "brain dead" and his organs may be legally removed.
Since the world-wide adoption of the "brain death" criteria, developed at Harvard University in 1968, Dr. Coimbra said, "The lives of thousands of human beings, including children, adolescents and young adults, are lost every year in each country."
The premise of the standard Harvard Criteria for "brain death" is that lack of brain function implies absence of blood circulation to the brain, which is what causes brain necrosis, or the irreversible death of brain cells. But since the definition of the Harvard Criteria, he explained, medical scientists have discovered that the absence of discernable brain function cited by the criteria is not the same as "brain necrosis," or true brain death. In many cases where there is no discernable brain activity, patients have recovered with appropriate treatment.
Dr. Coimbra cited one study supported by the National Institutes of Health in 1975, that found that of 226 comatose patients determined to be "brain dead" for at least 48 hours, only 50 percent were later found to have "pathological signs of necrosis." 21 percent of the patients had no signs of dead brain cells. Even patients who show no signs of synaptic activity, a condition of the "brain death" diagnosis, are still recoverable at that point.
For patients, he explained, with only less serious brain damage, who are submitted to the apnoea test, "the test will cause total necrosis of the brain." The apnoea test increases carbon dioxide concentrations in the blood. This increases the inter-cranial pressure and causes final reduction of the brain circulation.
But, Dr. Coimbra said, the information that the apnoea test causes severe, irreversible brain damage, is being suppressed. Even with this knowledge of the danger of the apnoea test and the fact that some patients who are declared brain dead can and frequently have recovered, the legal definition of "brain death" is itself irreversible.
He told the conference of an experience in his clinical practice as a neurologist involving a 15 year-old girl with a severe brain trauma. She was declared "brain dead" but he treated her with thyroid hormones and she began to recover. She started breathing and having seizures, he said. "But a ‘dead’ brain cannot seize. That brain cannot express convulsions and she was having convulsions." This meant that a diagnosis of "brain death" even according to the Harvard Criteria, did not apply.
"And so I went to the doctors in the ICU that, up to that time, were denying proper care to that patient under the assumption that she was brain dead." One of the attending physicians in the ICU, he relates, wrote on the girl’s chart that even recovery could not reverse a legal definition of "brain death."
The physician wrote the following statement, a photocopy of which was shown at the conference: "If the diagnostic criteria for a brain death are fulfilled at a certain time, the person is legally dead no matter whether those criteria become no longer fulfilled later on."
This incident showed, he said, that medical professionals attending patients officially declared "brain dead" "feel at risk" of legal action from families.
"That is why there is such a fearful repression when we start talking about those subjects in medical forums."
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