Defining the Boundary of Life and Death

Biomedical definitions of death, including the concept of brain death, appear to be clear cut. However, when examined closely considerable ambiguity remains. Even among biomedical professionals one frequently hears confusion in language when speaking, say, about an organ donor who is technically brain dead, but may appear to be as "alive" as adjacent patients in an ICU. Linguistically, these brain-dead bodies experience a second "death" once organs are retrieved for transplantation and ventilatory support is removed (Lock). It is thus not surprising that patients and families can also become quite confused about states resembling death, including brain death, the persistent vegetative state, or coma (Kaufman).

Disputes arise when a patient meets the biomedical criteria for "brain death," but the family refuses to allow withdrawal of "life" support. In a masterful essay, Joseph Fins describes two clinical negotiations about withdrawing life support from children defined as brain dead (1998). In one case, the hospital team engages the family's orthodox rabbi and other religious authorities in a complex series of negotiations, respecting throughout the family's view that the patient is not truly dead and that only God can declare death. A more contentious case involves an African-American family who maintains a stance of mistrust toward the healthcare establishment in spite of every effort on the part of the clinical team. The family's past experience shaped its understanding of the team's intentions in spite of great effort to gain their trust. Disputes such as these are the "hard" cases, revealing cultural clashes that cannot be ameliorated simply by motivated clinicians, sensitivity, or excellent communication skills, although clearly those things may keep conflict to a minimum or may keep small cultural disputes from erupting into major pitched battles.

Work has focused on care of the body after death, particularly the question of autopsy, since in some societies the body is considered inviolable after death; its contents sacred and necessary for the individual's appropriate survival into the afterlife. These cultural practices were most fully-developed in Egyptian dynasties, where funeral practices and preparation for life after death—including mummification and building of elaborate tombs—consumed the society's symbolic attention and material resources. The acceptability of autopsy, or other uses of the body following death, is deeply sensitive to cultural and religious prohibitions. Knowledge about the acceptability of autopsy, or requests for organ donation in the case of acute trauma, cannot usually be guessed by "reading" a family's background.

Furthermore, different ethnocultural groups may have varied understandings of the nature, meaning, and importance of cognitive impairment in a patient. In a society where social relationships are a core value, esteemed more highly than individual achievement, disabilities that affect intellectual functioning but do not interfere with the ill person's role in the family may be more readily "accepted." By contrast, in some societies severely handicapped people may experience a form of social death, isolated from the broader community.

Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

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