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Defining death: when physicians and families differ
  1. J M Appel
  1. Correspondence to:
 Jacob M Appel
 Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Community Health, Brown University, 140 Claremont Ave #3D, New York, NY 10027, USA;

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Whether the law should permit individuals to opt out of accepted death standards is a question that must be faced and clarified

While media coverage of the Terri Schiavo case in Florida has recently refocused public attention on end of life decision making, another end of life tragedy in Utah has raised equally challenging—and possibly more fundamental—questions about the roles of physicians and families in matters of death. The patient at the centre of this case was Jesse Koochin, a six year old boy suffering from “inoperable and incurable” brain cancer. He had been undergoing care at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City since September 15, 2004 when “his tumor pushed his brain stem down through the skull”.1 Subsequently, two physicians independently determined that the child was “brain dead” and informed his parents that they would order life support removed within twenty four hours. Steve and Gayle Koochin overtly rejected the hospital’s definition of death. The couple, relying on traditional notions of cardiopulmonary death, obtained a restraining order to keep Jesse on a ventilator and ultimately removed the brain dead child from the hospital. The ongoing case raises the complex question of whether patients’ families should be permitted to opt out of widely accepted definitions of death in favour of their own standards.

The definition of death has evolved rapidly in the United States over the past thirty five years. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the medical community, the legal system, and an overwhelming majority of the public understood death to …

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