Ever wondered if it’s possible to be buried or cremated when you’re just in a coma? We’re guessing that the answer is a hard yes, and if not, the answers you seek are just a couple of scrolls down below. If you lived in an earlier time – doctors truly had horrifying ways of determining death. Luckily for us, we’re living in the 21st century, so there is a clear, dedicated process to determining if someone is clinically dead.
Coma vs Brain Dead
References to a “coma” and someone who is “brain-dead” are often used interchangeably in films and TV, but they actually have different meanings. Whilst someone can recover from a coma, they can’t recover from brain death.
What is brain death?
This means a person has lost all the upper brain functions that create memories and behaviours and allow them to think and communicate, but they have also lost all the involuntary actions your lower brain goes through to keep you alive, like controlling the heart, breathing, nervous system, temperature and reflexes. If someone is brain-dead, these functions are performed by hospital equipment like ventilators. The person is legally dead.
What is a coma?
On the other hand, if someone is in a coma, they are legally alive. In a coma, the person still has brain function, which doctors can measure by observing electrical activity and reactions to external activity. So the body continues to breathe, the heart beats, and the person can regain consciousness – usually after a few weeks – or sometimes it can take years.
Ancient tests to determine brain activity
Years and years ago (we’re talking pre-20th century) – the tests to determine if someone was really dead were pretty gruesome. Basically, if they happened to still be alive, the tests likely would have killed them.
Here are some examples of tests (and a warning here, some of these are pretty graphic!):
- Shoving needles under toenails, or into the heart or stomach.
- Burning feet with hot red pokers.
- Literally blowing smoke up a person’s backside to see if it would warm the body up and make the person breathe.
We could go on, but honestly, you get where we’re going with this.
Modern tests to determine brain-death
You can breathe a sigh of relief, because you don’t have to worry about being accidentally trapped in a casket. We now have many reliable, scientific tests to confirm that someone is not just in a coma, but is brain-dead. These days, there is a strict procedure that doctors and healthcare practitioners must adhere to in order to determine and certify whether someone is brain-dead.
They check if:
- The pupils respond to light
- There is any reaction to pain
- The eyes blink where the eye surface is touched
- The eyes move when the head is moved
- The eyes move when ice water is poured into the ear
- There is a gagging reflex when the back of the throat is touched
- The person breathes when the ventilator is switched off
- An electroencephalogram test shows brain activity
And if none of these show signs of life, then a person is declared brain-dead.
As you can see, a person has to fail a whole lot of tests to be declared brain-dead. Luckily, modern medicine has evolved and the tests these days are way more reliable and humane than they used to be. The likelihood of this situation happening? It’s pretty close to zero.
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