Updated: May 10
The title of this post is not original; it’s from the Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA). March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, and the name of the blog is the slogan from the BIAA 2021 to 2023 campaign. According to the BIAA, “At least 2.8 million Americans sustain a traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year,” and many more have non-traumatic or acquired brain injuries (ABI). Those with TBIs and ABIs are often stigmatized, misdiagnosed, declared legally dead, and they’re plundered for organs. People are not only more than their brain injuries; they’re also more than their brains too!
Jahi McMath, a young teenage girl with an ABI, was declared dead under US law in California in 2013. After a routine tonsillectomy, she developed post-operative bleeding and had a cardiac arrest. She was resuscitated but required a ventilator to breathe. According to her doctors, the loss of circulation caused an ABI. Three days later, Jahi was declared legally dead under the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) and issued a death certificate. Her parents objected to the declaration of death and refused to remove Jahi from the ventilator.
Even after Jahi showed integrative function between her brain and body, healing in her brain stem, and responses to external stimuli, the courts in California still refused to dismiss her death certificate. These findings contradict the legal criterion for brain death under the UDDA, which requires “irreversible cessation of all the functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem.” She clearly did not have “irreversible cessation” of “all” brain functions. In 2018, Jahi received her second death certificate in New Jersey. The cause of death was internal bleeding due to liver failure that led to a cardiac arrest.
Jahi was branded dead while living with an ABI. She was neglected in the worst possible ways by the institutions meant to protect and show her compassion. Jahi was not treated as more than her brain injury. As a result, the underage girl was denied medical care, nutrition, and hydration against her parent’s wishes. These essential elements of care may have improved her recovery and prognosis. More awful, yet. If Jahi’s parents consented to donate her organs, the legally “dead” teenager with an ABI would’ve received the requested treatments. The goal of ongoing life support would’ve been to preserve her vital organs and donate them to someone without an ABI. How is that for stigmatization?
Another person with a TBI is Zach Dunlap, who is now happily married with a family. His story, however, is absolutely chilling, and it may even provide insight into the mental state of Jahi. In 2007, he suffered a TBI after a four-wheeler accident. He was pronounced dead according to the UDDA. Zach’s driver’s license indicated he was an organ donor. Under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), preparations were underway to plunder his organs (see Cherish Your Life! DON’T Be a Registered Organ Donor). Zach’s cousin, however, used tact, basic medical assessment skills, and boldness to deliver Zach from the misdiagnosis and organ-procurement death sentence.
While Zach was “brain dead,” a state confirmed by medical technology and professional opinion, he was still alive on the inside. Zach became inwardly aware while on life support but remained unresponsive to outsiders (see Inward Awareness, OBEs, and NDEs). Zach said in a 2019 interview with Dr. Paul Byrne: “The next thing I remember was laying in the hospital bed, not being able to move, breathe—couldn’t do anything, on a ventilator. I heard someone say, ‘I’m sorry he’s brain-dead. He’s passing away.’ And there’s nothing I could do, just get mad. I couldn’t do anything—to sign—at all. . . .I tried to scream, tried to move, just got extremely angry.”
Thankfully, Zach was treated as more than his brain injury. Sadly, 90 percent of the organ donor pool in the US is not. People with TBIs and ABIs are usually declared legally dead while on life support and pillaged for organs. In the remaining 10 percent with brain function, the savagery is equally horrific (see Harvesting Organs & Cherishing Life). As the advocacy group BIAA points out, many people like Zach and Jahi continue to live on with TBIs and ABIs, and they are more than their brain injuries.
Like everyone else, they bear the stamp of the Creator, and so do organ donors on life support with brain injuries. Not only does science confirm this fact, but Holy Scripture undergirds it as divine truth (Gen. 1:27; 2:7). Humans possess a spirit in union with their bodies. Life and personhood began with this union, and it ends with this disunion. At one time, a cellular structure was given God-breathed life, and the person was dependent on life support in a womb. In the 21st century, a fully developed image-bearer of the Creator does not lose life until he or she is removed from life support outside the womb. All of us are more than our brains and brain injuries too!
According to the Bible, there is a sense in which the spirit is locally present with the body, but it also mysteriously transcends it. The apostle Paul mentioned being separated from his body while his body was still biologically alive. “Whether [I] was in the body or out of the body, I do not know—God knows” (2 Cor. 12:2). This experience was more than a vision like John (Rev. 9:17), or Peter’s trance (Acts 10:10), or even Paul’s nightly vision of the Macedonian (Acts 16:9). Paul had an experience where his spirit was separate from his body.
Some people define death as a lack of conscious experience or a loss of personhood (see Monists Disguised as Dualists). These people believe that despite having a beating heart what made the person a living human being has left the body. These ideas of death, however, are not supported by Holy Scripture. They are linked to Plato and Aristotle. Incidentally, it’s also not possible to believe life and personhood start at conception—at the level of cells—if holding to these views. Paul said his spirit may be “out of the body” while his body still has signs of biological life.
Today, numerous people also report out-of-body or near-death experiences (OBEs, NDEs). Many of these retellings are not credible, but some have undergone scrutiny with healthy skepticism. In five years of ongoing research, critical care physician Sam Parnia has found consistent themes among cardiac arrest victims who were resuscitated. Parnia questioned these people about their experiences. Some individuals reported seeing the resuscitation events occurring around them and other types of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.
If anything at all, NDEs and OBEs should cause us to pause and exercise caution when determining biological death. Holy Scripture, however, is emphatically clear: “Jesus,” on the cross, “crying out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,’ having said this, he breathed his last breath and died” (Luke 23:46). People who experience OBEs and NDEs are not dead, nor were they ever dead and brought back to life! Death occurs after cardiopulmonary function ceases and at no point before then. After this separation—death—there will be no more OBEs, NDEs, or biological life.
Consider this, if we don’t dream during sleep, we are not inwardly aware or conscious—we’re unconscious but biologically alive. We expect to be protected during our sleep from harm and to wake up in the morning. What if we end up unresponsive to outsiders, on life support (still biologically alive), and start to dream? Are we still unconscious? No. Better yet, what if we become inwardly aware and conscious of events around us? Now that may be terrifying, especially if we are registered organ donors being wheeled to the slaughter!
While there is a close association between the body and spirit, the spirit permits unique perceptions consistent with one’s identity distinct from the body. This is a mysterious relationship. As Paul says, “God knows,” and we don’t.