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Brain Death

Is brain death really death?

Will my loved one feel any pain during the organ recovery?

How long can I stay with my loved one?

Is brain death the same thing as a coma or persistent vegetative state?


Brain death is a legal determination of death. Brain death is not a new concept, it emerged in the 1960s after medical science advanced to a point where individuals could be supported on machines that kept the heart and lungs working. Brain death is the irreversible cessation of all brain function, including the brain stem.

In the state of Alabama, two licensed physicians not affiliated with transplant or procurement, must examine the patient and agree that the patient does not have any brain function. A brain dead patient has no clinical signs of brain function. This includes the following:

  • No response to pain
  • No cough or gag reflex
  • No pupillary response to light
  • No corneal response, no blinking when the cornea (the front part of the eye) is touched
  • No response when the head is rotated from side-to-side or when ice water is instilled in the ear
  • No spontaneous respirations (no breathing on their own)

Brain death can be confusing for families to understand. Brain dead individuals may look ďaliveĒ because a breathing machine (the ventilator) breathes for the patient. Since the heart can beat independently of the brain, the heart may continue to beat after a patient is brain dead because the breathing machine provides the oxygen the heart and other organs need. If the breathing machine is removed, the brain dead individual will not breathe on their own. Consequently, after the breathing machine is removed the heart will stop beating.

Patients who are brain dead may be able to donate organs for transplant. This includes:

  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Kidneys
  • Lungs
  • Intestine
  • Pancreas

One person who donates organs may help eight or more people waiting for life-saving organs.

Questions about Brain Death:

Is brain death really death?

Yes. Brain death is a medical and legal determination of death. All 50 states recognize brain death. In Alabama, after the second brain death exam is performed and documented in the patientís chart, this is the legal date and time of death.

Will my loved one feel any pain during the organ recovery?

No. When organs are recovered after cardiac (heart) death or brain death the patient does not feel any pain. After a patient dies, they no longer feel pain.

How long can I stay with my loved one?

Many families choose to go home after brain death has been pronounced and they have given consent for organ donation. The family is usually physically and emotionally exhausted. If the family wishes to stay, the Alabama Organ Center and the hospital will work with the family to meet their needs for visitation.

Is brain death the same thing as a coma or persistent vegetative state?

No, patients who are brain dead do not have any brain function. Brain death is irreversible and non-recoverable.