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Brain death – How to cope with it

It is always traumatic to see a loved one die. More tragic is when the decision on his or her life and death hangs on a thin thread. Most patients of road traffic accidents, severe stokes, head injuries or cerebral hemorrhage are all confined to a situation where they live technically only on life support systems. The most difficult decision for the relatives of these victims is to give consent to the medical staff attending on these brain dead patients to stop life support- thereby accepting the fact that the person in question is actually dead.

Families often find it difficult to accept that a relative who is still warm with no apparent injuries and breathing with the help of a ventilator can be brain dead, despite explanations from medical staff. However by witnessing tests to confirm that the patient is actually brain dead, the family and friends can be convinced about the futility of prolonging the life support, say doctors.

Two-thirds of consultants and nurses who had previous experience of relatives being present during testing felt that the relatives had benefited from this," Dr Stephen Bonner said in a report in the British Medical Journal.

The intensive care specialist at South Cleveland Hospital in Middlesbrough, northern England, and his colleagues said relatives should be counseled before they witness the tests, which confirm that the body can no longer function without medical assistance.

"It is possible that allowing relatives to be present may help them to understand the diagnosis and assist the grieving process," Bonner said.

"These are not people with brain damage, these are people with total brain death. It is completely different to people in a persistent vegetative state who have the ability to breathe and therefore have the potential to wake up in a year or two," he added.

It is very difficult for the people involved to actually take this hard decision to stop life support. But by coming to terms with death they can actually avoid a lot of heartache and trauma. It is actually a race against death that man has never won.

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