A question about organ donation: What is meant by ‘brain death’?

If you are still in two minds about signing the organ donor register, and perhaps fear you may be pronounced dead prematurely, it may be useful to look at the concept of ‘brain death’.

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What is ‘brain death’ exactly? And, are you actually dead when doctors pronounce you are ‘brain dead’.

A person is dead when the heart and lungs cease to function, but also when the brain has permanently stopped working. The brain needs oxygen-rich blood constantly.

If the brain – at a normal body temperature and without the influence of medication – does not receive oxygen-rich blood for more than a few minutes, it will be damaged. This causes all brain activity to cease permanently. Even artificial respiration and medication will not get blood to flow to the brain any more. To continue treatment is pointless under these circumstances. The brain dead person has passed away.

Irreversible and complete loss of brain activity

Someone is brain dead when there is irreversible and complete loss of the functioning of the brain and the brainstem, including the medulla oblongata. The person cannot breath autonomously.

All brain functions have ceased and the body cannot regulate blood pressure and temperature anymore. Brain death is only diagnosed in the case of a fatal brain injury. The cause of this has to be known and untreatable, for instance as a result of a brain haemorrhage, an accident, or a primary brain tumour.

Video and animation

The Dutch Transplantation Society has created a video and an animated film in which the term brain death is explained clearly and concisely. In the video, Berry Kremer, neurologist at the University Medical Centre in Groningen, explains how the brain works, its function in the body, and which aspects of its functioning are involved in the term ‘brain death’.

The pronouncement of brain death is made with the utmost care and according to the Brain Death Protocol. This protocol has been drafted by the Health Council and is part of the Organ Donation Act. The protocol has to be followed by every hospital involved, at all times. The animation shows step-by-step which examinations doctors must carry out before they can pronounce a person brain dead.

Organ donor yes or no?

Should you become an organ donor: yes or no? This is a difficult question for many people. Unfortunately, more and more people in the Netherlands have to wait an increasingly long time for a donor organ. And every year, people die while on organ transplant waiting list.

By becoming an organ donor you can save lives. It is an easy step to take. In the Netherlands, if you want to become an donor, you can state your decision in an official register. Equally importantly, if you do not wish to donate your organs after death, or if you would like your next of kin would make the decision for you, you can register that as well. Your registration as a foreign national is very welcome.

are you a donor pic with balloons.jpg

Organ Donation – How does it work?

Should you die in a hospital intensive care unit, you will still be linked to an artificial respirator, which keeps your organs in optimal condition. The doctor will contact the donor registry to find out if you have agreed to be a donor or not. If you have, your family will be informed and doctors will look for a suitable match.

Read more about the organ donation procedure in English or German 

In the Netherlands, everyone over the age of 12 can register their intentions. New arrivals are asked after living in the country for three years if they would like to be included in the register.

What do other internationals think? Vanessa, who is German and Lisa, who is American, have made their decisions.

Ten facts about organ donationn

Thumbnail image for new arrivals and donors.jpgShould you become an organ donor: yes or no? The choice raises a lot of questions with many people. Are my organs fit to donate? Will I still be able to have a funeral and can I be buried according to my wishes once I’ve become a donor?

And if I have indicated that I am a donor, will doctors be less motivated to treat me to the best of their abilities? Read ten facts about organ donation in English or in German.

How do I register my decision?

There are several ways to register your intentions. Find out more about how to fill out the donor form and about which options are available, in English or German. It only takes a couple of minutes.

Save lives

By becoming an organ donor you can save several lives after your death. Denise saved the lives of five people with her organs, including someone of her own age. Denise was 17 when she died in intensive care after a traffic accident

Her mother says they knew she wanted to donate her organs and the decision was easy. Her heart, lungs, liver and kidneys gave five people a new lease of life. ‘It makes the loss of your child slightly less without reason if you can help other people,’ says her mother.

Watch the video (in Dutch).

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