Important and provocative, The Undead examines why even with the tools of advanced technology, what we think of as life and death, consciousness and nonconsciousness, is not exactly clear and how this problem has been further complicated by the business of organ harvesting.
Dick Teresi, a science writer with a dark sense of humor, manages to make this story entertaining, informative, and accessible as he shows how death determination has become more complicated than ever. Teresi introduces us to brain-death experts, hospice workers, undertakers, coma specialists and those who have recovered from coma, organ transplant surgeons and organ procurers, anesthesiologists who study pain in legally dead patients, doctors who have saved living patients from organ harvests, nurses who care for beating-heart cadavers, ICU doctors who feel subtly pressured to declare patients dead rather than save them, and many others. Much of what they have to say is shocking. Teresi also provides a brief history of how death has been determined from the times of the ancient Egyptians and the Incas through the twenty-first century. And he draws on the writings and theories of celebrated scientists, doctors, and researchers—Jacques-Bénigne Winslow, Sherwin Nuland, Harvey Cushing, and Lynn Margulis, among others—to reveal how theories about dying and death have changed. With The Undead, Teresi makes us think twice about how the medical community decides when someone is dead.
Suddenly, death doesn't seem so certain after all. In this brutally honest look at how doctors determine the moment of death, skeptical science writer and Omni magazine cofounder Teresi (The God Particle) relishes ripping into the 1968 Harvard team that formulated new criteria for determining death: "loss of personhood," or brain death. Doctors, Teresi says, can now "declare a person dead in less time than it takes to get a decent eye exam" by testing reflexes: "a flashlight in the eyes, ice water in the ears, and then an attempt to gasp for air" when the respirator is disconnected. Teresi interviews scientists who question the finality of brain death when the heart is still beating, and even the concept that personhood is located solely in the brain. More alarming, Teresi charges that the brain-death revolution is driven by the $20 billion-a-year organ transplant business. Teresi will scare readers to death with examples of how undependable brain-death criteria can be one organ donor began to breathe spontaneously just as the surgeon removed his liver. But the more powerful effect of this scathing report should be the start of an uncomfortable but necessary conversation between doctors and potential organ donors.
Very interesting book to say the least. A must read for anyone who is going to die, i.e., everybody.
You can bet your last dollar nobody I know will ever be harvested. Not after reading this book. I'm spreading the word.