Although death by neurologic criteria (brain death) is legally recognized throughout the United States, state laws and clinical practice vary concerning three key issues: (1) the medical standards used to determine death by neurologic criteria, (2) management of family objections before determination of death by neurologic criteria, and (3) management of religious objections to declaration of death by neurologic criteria. The American Academy of Neurology and other medical stakeholder organizations involved in the determination of death by neurologic criteria have undertaken concerted action to address variation in clinical practice in order to ensure the integrity of brain death determination. To complement this effort, state policymakers must revise legislation on the use of neurologic criteria to declare death. We review the legal history and current laws regarding neurologic criteria to declare death and offer proposed revisions to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) and the rationale for these recommendations.
Management of patients with terminal brain disorders can be medically, socially, and ethically complex. Although a growing number of feasible treatment options may exist, there are times when further treatment can no longer meaningfully improve either quality or length of life. Clinicians and patients should discuss goals of care while patients are capable of making their own decisions. However, because such discussions can be challenging, they are often postponed. These discussions are then conducted with patients' health care proxies after patients lose the capacity to make their own decisions. Disagreements may arise when a patient's surrogate desires continued aggressive interventions that are either biologically futile (incapable of producing the intended physiologic result) or potentially inappropriate (potentially capable of producing the patient's intended effect but in conflict with the medical team's ethical principles). This article explores best practices in addressing these types of conflicts in the critical care unit, but these concepts also broadly apply to other sites of care.
The case of Charlie Gard, an infant who was hospitalized in England due to a mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome that led to an epileptic encephalomyopathy, was highly publicized. Though Charlie's parents lobbied for him to receive experimental nucleoside replacement therapy as a desperate effort to save him, this request was denied, and after a lengthy legal battle, he died in late July 2017. We discuss the ethical considerations and consequences of this case.
We describe two unusual cases of cardiopulmonary death in mechanically ventilated patients in the neurological intensive care unit. After cardiac arrest, both patients were pulseless for a protracted period. Upon extubation, both developed agonal movements (gasping respiration) resembling life. We discuss these cases and the literature on the ethical and medical controversies associated with determining time of cardiopulmonary death. We conclude that there is rarely a single moment when all of a patient's physiological functions stop working at once. This can pose a challenge for determining the exact moment of death.