Last year, a young man I knew suffered an undiagnosed brain aneurysm which burst on his way to work. He was driving down the interstate at the time and wandered across the median where he hit an oncoming car head-on. Thanks to the testimony of a witness traveling behind him, the paramedics and emergency staff immediately diagnosed him as possibly suffering an aneurysm. They got him into treatment right away but unfortunately on the second day in the ICU, he had a brain-stem stroke: basically, the worst kind. By this time, mutual friends had let me know what happened, and I was making emergency arrangements to travel to his city.
At this point, I should tell you that Andy was a phenomenal human being, just really the kind of son that every parent would want to raise. He was considerate, respectful, fun-loving, loyal, adventurous, faithful, and joyous. His MySpace listed his father as his hero and his concerns were always his family, both his parents and especially his younger sister. To my knowledge, he never went through a period of rebellion, and never was ’embarrassed’ by his parents, as so many kids feel at least temporarily. His family had raised Andy in a very evangelical church and though he had a lot of fun in college and afterward, he never strayed very far and I must say again, that he was one of the most thoughtful, kind, and generous people I’ve ever met.
As I was getting ready to travel to see him, a team of doctors were testing Andy’s brain responses. Though he had some functioning, and could breathe on his own, they determined that he was “brain-dead” and recommended to his devastated family that they sign-off on harvesting his organs. Now, absolutely, Andy would have wanted to help others through donations of his working organs. His parents clearly knew this too. They sadly agreed, having spent several days in shock in the hospital. However, when I heard about this decision, I was stunned. I am by no means a medical expert but I know a little about medical issues. I kept asking our mutual friends if they were explaining the story correctly. How could the doctors declare Andy ‘brain dead’ when he passed the functioning test and could breathe on his own? This really made no sense to me. I asked them over and over to explain the details to me.
The declaration of ‘brain dead’ was made on a Monday and on Tuesday morning, a team of specialists collected his vital organs and Andy died. He was 27.
I never made it in time to say goodbye.
At the funeral, I was not surprised to see that his date of death listed, not as Monday; rather, it was listed for Tuesday–the day they harvested his organs. Andy did not die when he had the stroke; he died when they removed his heart. To this day, I believe that Andy didn’t suffer brain death– I believe he was, in effect, murdered. His poor grieving family trusted a team of doctors to inform them fully and ethically and I think they were not informed well, if at all.
I later did a lot of research on brain injury, the tests to determine a brain death, the standards and the ethics. It turns out, over the last decade, the definition of ‘brain dead’ has gotten broader and broader and can now be made with criteria set locally by the physician in charge at the hospital. A second doctor needs to sign off on it, but in reality, the second doctor rarely if ever disagrees, especially in the case of organ donors. The reason? well, because those organs getting donated aren’t getting any fresher sitting inside a still-living person. Make no mistake about it: there is alot of pressure put on doctors to declare a brain injury victim “brain dead” so that harvesting can move forward. Until Andy died, I had no idea that we were so far down the slippery slope. Terri Schiavo should have prepared me…but it had not.
Since Andy died, I have read one ‘miraculous’ recovery story after another, including this dramatic recovery:
CLEVELAND, Ohio — A West Virginia woman was being transferred to the Cleveland Clinic after walking the line between life and death.
Doctors are calling Val Thomas a medical miracle. They said they can’t explain how she is alive. They said Thomas suffered two heart attacks and had no brain waves for more than 17 minutes. At about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, her heart stopped and she had no pulse. A respiratory machine kept her breathing and rigor mortis had set in, doctors said.
“Her skin had already started to harden and her fingers curled. Death had set in,” said son Jim Thomas.
They rushed her to a West Virginia hospital. Doctors put Thomas on a special machine which induces hypothermia. The treatment involves lowering the body temperature for up to 24 hours before warming a patient up.
After that procedure, her heart stopped again. “She had no neurological function,” said Dr. Kevin Eggleston.
Her family said goodbye and doctors removed all the tubes. However, Thomas was kept on a ventilator a little while longer as an organ donor issue was discussed. Ten minutes later the woman woke up and started talking.
“She (nurse) said, ‘I’m so sorry Mrs. Thomas.’ And mom said, ‘That’s OK honey. That’s OK,” Jim Thomas said.
Val Thomas and her family strongly believe that the Lord granted them their miracle and they want everyone to know. “I know God has something in store for me, another purpose. I don’t know what it is but I’m sure he’ll tell me,” she said.
She was taken to the Cleveland Clinic for specialist to check her out. Doctors said amazingly she has no blockage and will be fine.
Though I read such stories with awe and joy, I must confess that I also feel angry. I can’t stop wondering if Andy was really alive and somewhere locked within his head.
I am pro-life. I believe that we should respect all life, and we should do everything within our powers as Christians to protect innocent life. Euthanasia gets some news coverage and we in the pro-life movement do pay attention to it. But I have not seen any pro-life or religious group talking about the expanding definition of ‘brain dead.’ In fact, I bet that most of us, even the best informed, have no idea this is happening. It is a silently progressing societal abomination. I tried to bring this to the attention of some prominent Catholic, pro-life bloggers but with no luck. So I decided to start the conversation myself.
A few weeks ago, I read another article that I think we should note in regard to brain injury and brain death. It’s a report of a study done by a team of neurologists at Cambridge in the U.K….In other words, not just any little school in academia backwater somewhere.
Patients in vegetative or minimally conscious states may not be able to speak for themselves or report that they are aware of their surroundings, but some can learn, according to a new study.
While this would not have helped Andy, nevertheless it shows again that we really don’t know much about how the brain functions and what ‘brain injury’ means. Therefore, we should not be making end-life decisions in most of the cases in which we are making them. Doctors, neural specialists and researchers simply do not know what is going on:
Interestingly, the researchers did not find any difference in learning between those in a vegetative state and those in a minimally conscious state. “What [this] tells us is that there might be a fair amount of misdiagnosis, or that some of the vegetative subjects were in fact minimally conscious,”Bekinschtein told LiveScience. (emphasis mine)
So I ask you…which of the major newspapers did you read this in? The New York Times? The Washington Post? Which media outlet who urged us all to be ‘compassionate’ to Terri Schiavo, and end her suffering, because she wasn’t there to begin with….which major media did you see report these findings on how little we knew all along? My guess is that you didn’t. I cannot emphasize this enough–the medical professionals do not know very much about brain injury, its pathology, its effects or its recovery.
Part of what makes it so easy for the medical community to vastly and I would say unethically expand the definition of brain death is modern Western culture. We simply do not accept suffering as an option for our life or anyone else’s. We have conditioned ourselves to not only avoid it, but demonize it. The real threat to society is not Sin, it’s not Evil, it’s not Satan…it’s Suffering. Suffering is the new Sin. We react to it with shuddering distaste, we shun it, we shun those who have it. In our morally relativistic society, it is acceptable to have no morals, but it is not acceptable to be weak, needy, in need of care, commitment or resources.
I have been pondering the problem the gift of suffering as of late. I may not be intellectually up to the challenge of writing on such a deeply spiritual and eminently human condition. But I have learned that suffering is not something to be merely endured and it certainly is not something to end at any cost. Our society does not see it that way. In other words, the majority of people would agree that suffering should be ended whenever possible, and many would add “however possible”. I was shocked when a young, on fire, pro-life Christian admitted to me that he is “on the fence” about euthanasia. We have to ask ourselves when we are inclined to agree with the majority on life issues if we are not seeing things from the world’s perspective and not from God’s? We know as believers that the world is in conflict with God, we know that Satan is hard at work here. He’s convincing us to not allow ‘suffering’ by showing ‘compassion’ through murder, to show ‘mercy’ and ‘charity’ by pre-killing the victims of brain injury in order ‘to do more good’ in the world through organ donation. It sounds so…good. It’s packaged so nicely. It has such an irresistible lure.
To that I say–“Get behind me, Satan!”
So many modern “solutions” to problems come from a rejection of suffering. “I could never carry my child to term, having it remind me of the man that raped me,” and others, accustomed to similar thinking, ignore the child’s humanity and innocence and concede abortion in cases of rape. It’s easier. Less suffering. I-could-never thinking. “But grandma is so old and weak, and tired, surely this disease will torture her to death if we do not put her out of her pain,” and others, accustomed to similar thinking, ignore the fact that rather than comforting and loving her, they will only do the work of the disease. It’s easier. Less suffering. I-could-never thinking….
We not only have to fight for laws that outlaw bad “solutions” to very real problems, but we also have to help those who are spiritually weaker, more vulnerable, more afraid, to learn to endure the difficulties of life by enduring them together. That is what “compassion” means in Latin, “to suffer with,” not “to magically make suffering go away.” It is what our Lord did by becoming human, and it is how we humans are to serve the Lord. Right now, crisis pregnancy centers and old folks’ homes seem especially the places to be – the front lines of our spiritual warfare against I-could-never thinking. The reply to such thinking that arises everywhere and especially in such places must always be, “Ah, but you can do all things with Him who strengthens you,” (Phil 4:13). And it must be followed by, “And I’ll help you do it.”
What Ryan is saying echoes what John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris:
Everyone who stops beside the suffering of another person, whatever form it may take, is a Good Samaritan. This stopping does not mean curiosity but availability. It is like the opening of a certain interior disposition of the heart, which also has an emotional expression of its own. The name “Good Samaritan” fits every individual who is sensitive to the sufferings of others, who “is moved” by the misfortune of another. (italics in original)
Let us suffer along with our fellow man. Let us share their suffering in true compassion. As a true Good Samaritan. Let us do it God’s way, not the world’s.
Eternal Father, strong to save the weak, the weary, the suffering and the unheard, I ask you to make my heart a place of true compassion, ready to share in the sufferings of others, and to find in my own suffering the way to your grace which transforms human souls. Have mercy on me, Lord and all those who call on your name, that the suffering of this time shall be as nothing compared to the glory to come. Amen.