In a recent post, I mentioned having learned that “There’s an area of your brain that handles a reflex to turn your head and look before you even form the question ‘What was that streak of orange and roaring noise?'” While this is true, it’s a relatively complicated reflex. There are some reflexes so important that they are completed before any message is sent to the brain at all! A good example of this is pulling back from something that hurts you. You’ve already reacted to the hot pan in your hand or the LEGO you stepped on in the dark before you ever think “Ow!”
One way this was demonstrated in lab was with a short film of a frog that had been “pithed.” It used to be done commonly in some science classes but by watching the film, it didn’t have to be repeated in every lab, every semester. The college saves money, fewer frogs die, we still learn. This procedure does render the frog brain dead: the parts of the frog that say “Heart, beat!” or “Lungs, breathe!” still work; the parts that say “I’m hungry” or “I like lily pads” or “Ow!” are gone. Over the course of this short film, we watched the frog react to painful stimuli using nothing more than spinal reflexes (regrettably, I can’t find a Youtube clip in English that demonstrates well). We were reminded by the narrator several times that the frog is not feeling anything, is not “trying” to do anything. The parts of the brain that feel or try were gone. It’s just reflexes.
At the end, the lab instructor — an older lady who had initially trained as a nurse in Brittain’s Army — told us that we needed to remember this film because those of us going into patient care were likely to someday encounter brain dead patients and their families, and their families would be desperate to attribute reflex movements to improvement in their condition. In fact, she remembers that the first time she saw these reflexes in person, “It scared the bejabbers out of me!”
And this brings me to the sad story of Jahi McMath. Last month, tonsil surgery went wrong for Jahi. She experienced severe bleeding, cardiac arrest, and brain death. She is currently on a ventilator — the part of her brain that would say “Lungs, breathe!” doesn’t work anymore either. The brain death was confirmed by no fewer than 5 licensed physicians, 3 of whom were selected by the girl’s family. She’s actually been declared dead. Nevertheless, the family has hopes that she will get better and wants her transferred to another facility. One doctor says he thinks the girl is not brain dead because “he visited Jahi’s bedside and observed her responding to her grandmother’s voice and touch with a squirming movement.”
Now, I’m not a neurologist, but I think I’ll take the word of multiple neurologists and other doctors over the word of one pediatrician who thinks he saw something that can be explained by simple spinal reflexes.
Talks to allow transfer this unfortunate young lady to another facility are ongoing at this moment. In the highly emotional words of the hospital’s lawyer: “It’s horrible that this child has died. It’s also horrible that it’s so difficult for her family to accept that death.”