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Do doctors purposely misdiagnose patients as brain dead?

In 2015, a California father won a lawsuit against doctors who refused to treat his comatose daughter for a life-threatening infection. The doctors claimed it was unethical to treat the woman because she was brain dead, but the father insisted they purposely misclassified her to justify their lack of proper medical care. Further, the father's lawyer claimed that doctors all across the U.S., including in New York, frequently misdiagnosis comatose patients as brain dead in order to cease treatment on "lost causes."

According to the lawsuit, the 29-year-old patient suffered an anorexia-related seizure in 2007 and fell into a coma. Last year, she developed a serious hip infection that required surgery. However, her doctors declined to perform the operation, claiming she was brain dead and that it was thus unethical to continue treating her. With the help of an attorney, her father obtained a court order barring the hospital from denying her care and brought in two independent neurologists to test her brain function. They determined she was not brain dead, and the hospital performed the life-saving surgery.

Comatose patients have no awareness of themselves or their environment but are still able to breathe on their own and react to pain. Typically, they do not qualify for organ donations. Meanwhile, brain dead patients have irreversible brain damage that shuts down vital functions, such as the body's ability to breath unassisted. Brain dead patients are candidates for organ donation. There are strict medical guidelines for which patients qualify for organ donation, but the lawsuit suggests some doctors purposely blur the lines between comatose and brain dead patients in order to move on to organ transplantation.

It is devastating to learn that a loved one has been declared brain dead. If there is any suspicion of a mistake in such a diagnosis, however, family members may want to discuss their options with an attorney.

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