A few months ago my youngest sister of 35 years suffered a massive heart attack that eventually took her life. The heart attack was caused by a blood clot that formed in her foot from surgery a week earlier. She had foot surgery to repair damage caused by a car accident. Someone made an illegal turn and crashed into her car while she was driving home from work as a paramedic.

She was on life support for a few days after the heart attack. Two of my brothers who are docs were with her in the hospital. They called me with the bad news. Scans revealed that her brain had swollen and damaged the regions of the brain stem that control basic functions like breathing and heartbeat. The next day she was declared brain dead. One of my brothers said that looking at her on life support you would never guess that she was brain dead. She looked like she was sleeping. Life support created the illusion of being alive.

The decision was made to take her off life support and harvest her organs. Because she was an organ donor, two people came off kidney dialysis, someone’s life was saved with a liver transplant, and several individuals with advanced diabetes received islet cells. Organ donation made something good out of a tragic situation.

Recently in the news we’ve heard about the tragic circumstances surrounding a young girl who went in for tonsil surgery and ended up brain dead. The family refuses to accept that she is dead. In their minds she is not dead until her heart stops beating. Medical professionals say that she only looks alive because of life support and that her body cannot function without it. Professionals also said that her condition will gradually deteriorate and her body will eventually shut down. I imagine that when that happens, the family will be content that she is gone.

I respect the family’s right to do what they think is best for their daughter, but I can’t help think about the cost of keeping her on life support until her body shuts down. What about the medical costs? It must be expensive.  Who is paying for it? And what about the missed opportunity to harvest organs so that other children can have improved quality of life? Is continuing life support on a brain dead person whose body will eventually shut down shortsightedness? I will leave that answer to others.  

These issue boils down to this: When is someone truly dead? For most believers it’s when the spirit leaves the body, but when does that happen for a person on life support? I don’t think anyone really knows. When my sister was on life support I asked my dad if he thought her spirit was still with her body. He thought so, but wasn’t sure. I think my sister’s spirit could have left after her heart attack, or after her brain damage, or after she was taken off life support.

It is interesting that questions of when life begins and when life ends have arisen because of advancements in medical technology. Blessings in science and technology force us to grapple with challenging ethical and spiritual issues that were unheard of 50 years ago.   

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