In Australia the law recognises that there are two ways in which death may be determined;
1) When the heart has stopped beating and breathing has stopped permanently known as “Cardiac Death”
2) By the permanent loss of brain function known as “Brain Death”
A person may be able to donate organs when they have been declared brain dead in a hospital intensive care unit.
In certain circumstances, organ donation may also be possible after a person’s heart has stopped beating, this is referred to as “Donation after Cardiac Death” (DCD), however this practice is less common.
What is Brain Death?
Brain death is when blood flow to the brain stops. The brain stops functioning and dies with no possibility of recovery
People are sometimes confused about the difference between brain death and being in a coma. Brain death is completely different from being in a coma. A patient in a coma is unconscious because their brain is injured in some way, but their brain can continue to function and may heal. Medical tests can clearly distinguish between brain death and being in a coma.
Causes of Brain Death
The types of injuries which may cause the brain to die include accidents where there is trauma to the head, bleeding into the brain, infections or a long period of time without oxygen.
As part of the treatment for these conditions, the person will be connected to a machine called a ventilator, which artificially pushes oxygen into the lungs, causing the chest to rise and fall as if the person is breathing.
This is why it can be difficult to understand and accept that someone who is pink and warm and appears to be asleep is actually dead.
How is Brain Death diagnosed?
A series of tests carried out by two independent and qualified senior doctors confirms that brain death has occurred.
For a person to be declared brain dead there must not be any response to each and every one of the tests. The doctors will ensure that they are absolutely certain of the results of these tests prior to making the diagnosis of brain death.
What happens if a person is confirmed as being brain dead?
Once brain death has been confirmed, appropriate members of the medical team will speak with the family to determine if their relative had expressed any special wishes regarding organ donation.
If the decision is made to consent to organ donation, the person will remain in Intensive Care attached to the ventilator for a number of hours before being transferred to the operating theatre for the organ retrieval surgery.
Once consent is given, family members we still able to spend as much time as they need with their loved one prior to the retrieval surgery.
If the option of organ donation is declined, the medical staff will speak with the family about removing the ventilator
More people have the opportunity to donate tissue than organs.
Unlike organs, tissue may be stored for a period of time and tissue donation does not require the donor’s death to have occurred under the same limited circumstances as organ donation.
A person may still be able to be a tissue donor even after a person’s heart has stopped beating and cardiac death has taken place.