The Dangers of Brain Death Diagnosis  

Bradley Mattes   |   May 09, 2024

Many well-meaning people sign up to donate their organs when they die. However, what they may not know are the dangers of a brain death diagnosis and how it relates to organ donation. 

At one time the American Academy of Neurology stated on their website, “Many of the details of the clinical neurologic examination to determine brain death cannot be established by evidence-based methods. The detailed brain death evaluation protocol that follows is intended as a useful tool for clinicians. It must be emphasized that this guidance is opinion-based. Alternative protocols may be equally informative. (emphasis added) Quote accessed at: American Academy of Neurology Guidelines for Brain Death Determination | Welcome to Clinical Operations | Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency at Miller School of Medicine (

The Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) guidelines require: 

  • Irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or 
  • Irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.  

The American Academy of Neurology further states, “A determination of death must be made with accepted medical standards. The UDDA does not define ‘accepted medical standards.’ The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) published a 1995 practice parameter to delineate the medical standards for the determination of brain death…Despite publication of the practice parameter, considerable practice variation remains.” (emphasis added) 

They are right. Research published in February 2016, JAMA Neurology, examined over 500 hospitals and found huge discrepancies in how they determine a patient is brain dead. 

I Need My Organs! 

In the past there have been several notable examples of mistakes leading to a patient being declared brain dead prior to their recovery. In a special episode of our TV series Facing Life Head On, we interviewed Jenny Hamann, a woman whose husband was pressured to donate her organs just weeks before she awoke from a coma and began her journey to full recovery. Had it not been for his steadfast commitment to life her organs would have been harvested from her body while her heart was still beating, killing her.  

Money Drives Decisions

Keeping a patient who has been declared brain dead alive can become very expensive for hospitals. Because of this, there is a clear financial incentive for hospitals to declare a patient brain dead and harvest their organs.   

Hospitals can bill huge sums of money to harvest and transplant organs. In addition, organ procurement teams can exert considerable pressure on family members to allow their loved one’s organs to be harvested, as was the case with Jenny Hamann.  

Your Heart is Still Beating 

Most people are not adequately provided with informed consent when they sign up as an organ donor. It is rarely mentioned that if you are to be an organ donor, your heart must be pumping for any of your organs to be viable for use. Theresa Dampf, a nurse, had this dialogue with a doctor.

Organ donors may wish to revoke their status as an organ donor. Unfortunately, removing your organ donor status from your driver’s license is not enough to protect you from this danger. Each state has different requirements. Locate yours here. Life Issues Institute | Revoking Organ Donation Consent

Being an organ donor requires that you do due diligence in understanding its impact before making a decision.  

Defending Life at All Stages,  

Brad Mattes,

President, Life Issues Institute

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