How do doctors know if someone is really dead?

Death can occur in one of two ways:  1) when the heart and lungs stop functioning and 2) when the brain stops functioning.

While corneas and tissues can be recovered from those who have passed away under a variety of situations, the majority of organ donors are those who have suffered brain death following a massive trauma or a stroke.  Sometimes, organs can be recovered from a person who suffers cardiac death under a very specific set of circumstances.

Brain death occurs when a person has irreversible, catastrophic brain injury, which has interrupted blood flow to the brain long enough that the brain dies, causing brain activity to stop permanently.

Sometimes, people confuse the terms “brain death” and “coma,” and may even have heard the terms used interchangeably on TV or in the movies. But, brain death is very different from coma. A person cannot recover or “wake up” from brain death.  Brain death is death.

There are several tests that doctors perform to confirm brain death before donation can be considered.   In fact, organ donors are actually given more tests to determine official brain death than are non-donors.

For a limited period of time, a brain dead person can remain on a mechanical ventilator to keep blood and oxygen flowing through the organs so they remain healthy enough to be recovered for transplantation. The donation process must happen quickly before the natural processes of death begin to affect any organs that could be lifesaving.

Sadly, this sometimes feels too fast for grieving families who are still in shock from losing their loved one, or who want more time to accept what has happened.

This is another reason registering is so important.  Registering your choice to donate lifts the burden of decision-making off of the family during what is already a heart-wrenching time.

By registering, you also leave the precious, lifesaving option of donation open, helping to ensure that no medically-viable organ or tissue is ever lost for lack of consent.

Brain scan comparison
Brain scan comparison of uninjured, brain dead and comatose subjects.