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Can a man die twice? The problem with 'brain death'

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 24, 2012

Boxer Hector Camacho died on Saturday, his doctor said:

His death was reported by Dr. Ernesto Torres, the director of the Centro Medico trauma center in Puerto Rico, who said Camacho had a heart attack and died a short time later after being taken off life support.

This is confusing, because the same doctor had announced on Thursday that Camacho was “brain dead.” If “brain death” really is death, then the doctor appears to be saying that Camacho died twice, which is absurd.

Can a dead man have a heart attack? Would it be medically significant?

Camacho’s family agreed to turn off life-support systems after hearing the “brain dead” diagnosis. Naturally it was an anguishing decision. But as another news account has it:

Camacho’s condition deteriorated before his family opted to take him off life support.

Again there’s an absurdity here alongside the tragedy. A dead man’s condition can’t “deteriorate.” Medically speaking, death is as bad as it gets.

Come to think of it, what is “life support” for someone who is dead? Machines can mimic some of the natural processes of a living body, but at that point the machines “support” nothing; their work is pointless. It might have made sense in this case to unplug the machines after Camacho’s heart attack, if it was then evident that he was dead. But the doctor’s statement suggests that he died after the machines were unplugged (and two days after the doctor recommended unplugging them).

What was the cause of Hector Camacho’s death: a gunshot, a heart attack, or the removal of life-support systems? We can’t know the answer to that question until we know when he died. And frankly, we don’t.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dpatrick2 - Nov. 28, 2012 11:16 AM ET USA

    Thank you for writing about this example of the 'brain death' hoax. In an effort to pressure people and their loved ones to donate organs to supply the lucrative transplant industry, the definition of death was changed to allow the doctors to remove vital organs from a live donor. From corpses, one can only harvest necrotic tissue. Necrotic tissue is worthless to transplant, because it is not viable, it is in the process of decomposition. One may never donate an organ that causes his own death.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 25, 2012 7:13 PM ET USA

    The mechanism of injury described and the report that several arteries feeding the brain had been severed by a bullet would indicate that a catastrophic cerebral insult was suffered. It was reported that his heart actually stopped (arrested) within the first day but he was resuscitated with aggressive treatment. Severe anoxic brain injury can and often does result in extensive tissue death. These can be incredibly complex situations. In this case it appears an appropriate decision was made