Can a man die twice?

The problem with 'brain death'

Hector Camacho

The following commentary by Phil Lawler appeared November 24 on Catholic World News.


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.

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  1. An interesting book on brain death is freely available from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

    The diagnosis of brain death is of practical importance for organ transplantation.

    • Absolutely nothing unusual nor uncommon occurred in this man’s twice death diagnosis. His diagnosis of “brain dead” and then finally “dead” took the normal course.

      Once a family is informed that their loved one is “brain dead”, he (the person on life support) is from then on referred to by the medical community as being unequivocally “dead”. However, once the decision is made to remove the so called “”dead” person from life support, a doctor must always be present. If the “brain dead” person’s heart finally stops or is removed, as in the case of harvesting for transplantation, the time of death is only then recorded. This second pronouncing of “death” is the day and time of death recorded on a decedent’s death certificate.

  2. Yes.

    A man can die twice.

    Look at Lazarus whom Jesus raised, but who later had to die again.

  3. Maryanne Leonard says:

    In answer to your title question, yes, a man can die twice, and indeed even thrice. At age 63, following two separate heart attacks two days apart, my own father was pronounced dead by doctors, following which he was ultimately resusitated successfuly both times as a result of many minutes of effort, far longer than is normally done. After all, he was at one of the premier hospitals west of the Mississippi for heart attack survival rates. Following triple bypass surgery and a pacemaker, my father transformed himself into an insufferable health and fitness fanatic and lived a very active life to the day he died suddenly at nearly 80 years of age, suffering a third fatal heart attack at home. Resusitation was not attempted; rather, he was transported swiftly to a nearby hospital, where he was given the last rites upon arrival and died at peace shortly thereafter, thrice and for all.

  4. Gratias, thanks for that link.

  5. You are making a very good and important point.

  6. The entire “brain-dead” issue has become extremely disturbing. On one hand, one wants to be an organ donor in the event that should an unfortunate accident happen to you, you could end up saving the life of another person, perhaps more than just one. Afterall our bodies are mere temples, and as crude as it sounds: Parts is Parts! If I was in some type of an car crash that I would not survive and my heart could be transplanted let’s say into a young adult, perhaps one that is about to be married or has family devoted to them, or heck someone who has been sick most of their life waiting for a match, I believe that would be a loving gift.
    BUT seeing as their are some more concerned with that loving gift rather than being first concerned for the life and possible recovery of the giver of that gift, it’s sad to think that doctors may be acting with the goal of getting my heart rather than keeping it beating within me.
    I took my name off the donor list.

    • Lisa C, Your cause for concern is very reasonable, however, I can detect that you are still torn about wanting to help your fellow man in the event that you were ever seriously brain injured.

      Maybe it would help you, as well as others, to look at this issue from another angle. Let me make the supposition that you are already opposed to using extra in-vitro fertilized embryos for embryonic stem cell research. Putting aside the fact that this research has so far not proven to provide any therapeutic results, let’s say that embryonic stem cells finally did prove to be useful to cure several devastating diseases. Would you then be ok with sacrificing tiny human beings, who will probably never be allowed to grow beyond their embryonic stage anyway, in order to cure their fellow man’s diseases? If not, why not? My answer would be, because it would never be morally licit to kill one innocent human being in order to save others.

      Throughout the course of human history, God has inspired men to discover medical treatments to cure and/or prolong the life of countless human beings. This is commendable, as long as the treatment does not involve the killing of an innocent human being, even one who is near death, in order to provide treatment for others.

  7. Fredi D'Alessio says:

    If you search on “serious health care and end of life decisions”, you’ll find very relevant information for Catholics and others.

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