aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Disturbing thoughts

I don't want to second-guess those who have just been through hell, but . . . was Zachary Reyna, the twelve-year-old victim of the brain-eating amoeba, whose organs were just harvested for donation, actually -- you know -- dead when they began the process?

He was on a ventilator to keep his organs in good shape. A semblance of life, one might say. But if he's "brain-dead," well then, he's not really alive, is he? But no news account I have seen has said that he was "brain-dead," whatever exactly that means. Every news account says that his infection was halted by antibiotics, but that his brain had sustained extensive damage. How much damage has not been said in any report I've seen. Too much damage to support life without artificial support? Or too much damage to regain consciousness? The distinction matters.

If there is little or no brain function, if you are "brain dead," then if we turn off the ventilator, your body will cease to function. You will die, indeed, and your body start to decompose. And your organs will be useless for transplant. If, however, we turn off the ventilator and your body continues to sustain itself, then you are still alive. And you might live for a long time, years even. And, yes, you might never run and play and smile again, you would be a terrible burden on your parents and all that, but however useless and burdensome your life would be (to you and to your family), you would not be dead. And you have to be dead for us to have the right to take your organs.

I imagine myself at the scene. The family is slowly coming to terms with the fact that their little boy is never coming back. They are enduring every family's worst nightmare. Then the helpful doctor quietly and respectfully offers this family facing horrible pain and ruinous expense a way out. Your little boy can live and and do great things, he says, through organ donation. Suddenly, something seems to be salvaged from the tragedy, and the family agrees. They invoke the God who brings good out of evil. And Zachary is wheeled into a surgery theater and all his spare parts removed.

It seems cruel to ask, but I have to wonder: Was he really dead, or was he just "dead enough?" What tests did they do, how long did they wait, before they took his organs? In that in-between world of artificial life support, it's often hard to know. But doctors can get hardened by being too close to such boundaries, and they can get impatient sometimes. And families -- the most loving of families -- can get worn out with waiting for someone to die.

I should point out that I am not against organ donation; indeed, I have it designated on my driver's license that I am an unlimited organ donor. But I worry about a society that is too quick to take what is not yet theirs. I see in all the debates over managed care and abortion a definition of life that is highly utilitarian, that says your life must have value for the rest of us before we will concede its value to yourself. And so, I wonder: exactly how dead was Zachary Reyna?

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