Brain death (1357)

Key points below

Your child has suffered severe injuries or illness to their brain. These may be so severe that the brain cannot possibly recover. This means that the brain has died. When someone’s brain is dead, they have died. 

What is brain death?

Brain death is a medical and legal definition of death. It means that your child’s brain is no longer keeping their body alive. Brain death is permanent and cannot be reversed. The machines that are connected to your child are the only things that are keeping their body breathing and their heart beating. It is so hard to believe, because your child may look like they are just sleeping. 

How do doctors know that a person’s brain has died?

Doctors will confirm brain death only when all of these are true:

When all three of these are true, your child will be examined and have a series of tests. The doctors will check to see if your child:

Two doctors do the same series of tests. They do not do them at the same time. Together, these tests confirm if your child’s brain injury has resulted in brain death. 

About the tests:

During the brain death exam, the doctors are looking for:

What happens next?

If the second brain death exam confirms brain death, the doctor will pronounce your child’s legal time of death. This is often a very difficult and emotional experience. Your child’s heart will continue to beat while the ventilator is breathing for them. This is not the time your child is removed from the ventilator. You and your providers will discuss stopping all medical care that keeps your child’s lungs, heart and organs working. Saying goodbye to your child is very hard. It is hard to believe they have died. They may feel warm and be full of color while they are on the ventilator. 

After your child has been pronounced dead, experts from a partnering organ donation center will meet with you. These are never hospital staff. They explain what organ donation means and possible options. Each family will decide what is best for them after brain death is pronounced.

Doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains are here to support you. No matter what you decide, your child will be treated with love and respect.

Frequently asked questions

Is it possible that our child is just in a coma or a vegetative state?

No. Brain death is not a coma or vegetative state. A person in a coma has brain activity. Someone in a vegetative state has function in the brainstem to breathe on their own. Once brain death happens, all brain functioning has stopped. It cannot be restarted.

Has anyone ever survived brain death?

No. This has never happened. The injury to the brain is too severe. Brain death is final and cannot change. 

Is there anything else that can be done?

Everything possible to save your child’s life has been done. After brain death, nothing can be done to save your child’s life.

Does insurance coverage influence a diagnosis of brain death?
Absolutely not. Care provided to your child is determined by your providers and your family. 

Can the doctors who perform the brain death tests also have patients who are waiting for organs?
No. Any doctor who has other patients on a waiting list to get an organ donation cannot perform the brain death tests. Also, the doctors who perform tests for brain death cannot be from an organ donor organization.

What if I have religious or spiritual needs?

The Spiritual Care Team at Children’s Wisconsin is here to support and help you with your religious and cultural needs. You have this support during the hospital stay and after.  You will receive a bereavement folder with more information.  Together, all of your care team members are committed to respecting your beliefs and practices as best we can.
Ask any questions that you have.