“Brain dead” man “comes alive” – a miracle, naturally

Last week, Dateline featured a story on Zack Dunlap. Dunlap, 21, had a bad accident on a 4-wheeler, causing severe head trauma. At the hospital, they declared him “brain dead” – and it really does appear that they did some thorough testing to determine this. Here are excerpts from the transcript on MSNBC:

(Note: Doug and Pam Dunlap are Zack’s father and mother)

Dr. Mercer: His brain injuries were absolutely catastrophic.

Dr. Leo Mercer, Director of Trauma Services at United Regional, said Zack’s condition deteriorated as the hours wore on. With the young Oklahoman unresponsive to any sensory stimulation, the doctor wondered if they’d already
lost him. He apprised Pam and Doug of his findings.

Dr. Mercer: I told them that I was going to order a confirmatory test, a brain flow study.
(At the scanner)

We actually scan it twice…

A blood flow scan would determine if there was any blood still coursing through Zack’s brain. The results couldn’t have been worse.

Pam Dunlap: The doctor took us in and showed us the image on the computer. And he told us the dark areas will be the areas where there’s no blood flow to the brain.

Doug Dunlap: And that was the whole brain. That was the whole thing. It was just black.

Natalie Morales: Were the doctors giving you any sense of hope?

Doug Dunlap: They were already saying he was brain-dead.

(Looking at brain scan)

Natalie Morales: So, when you see this, I mean, he was in a permanent vegetative state?

Dr. Mercer: No, he was dead. He meets the legal, medical requirements for declaring a patient brain dead.

Since Zack’s license indicated he was an organ donor, they agreed to have his organs harvested so that others could be saved. To make a long story short, two friends who happen to be nurses have a “gut feeling” that he doesn’t look “ready.” One of them scraped Zack’s foot with a pocket knife and was astonished when the foot jerked away. Later, in front of disbelieving medical personnel, he dug his fingernail under Zack’s nail – causing Zack to bring his opposite hand over to bat him away. This resulted in a full stop of transplant plans and they went into rescue mode.

By all counts, Zack has made a remarkable recovery. He is mobile, alert, interactive – and he’s back home – 48 days after being declared “dead.”

Everyone’s calling it a “miracle.”

Me, I’m a little bothered by that particular leap of faith. Does this use of the word “miracle” simply give us permission to avoid asking bothersome questions about diagnostic procedures at the hospital – or maybe even about the “certainty” attached to the diagnosis of “brain death.”

Because calling it a “miracle” lets to medical people off the hook. Calling it a “miracle” prevents us from asking if others who have been declared “brain dead” might have been like Zack Dunlap – only not as lucky as Zack, because they had no one looking to see if maybe he might be alive after all.

The use of the term “miracle” is common in stories like these – and I’ve written about it before in relation to other stories of “miraculous” recoveries:

The next time you see a story like that of Finley, Ramirez, or Poutre, avoid thinking of them as “miracles” and think of them as survivors. And let’s ask their doctors how many other patients they’re treating aren’t quite so lucky.

I feel the same way now. So, if y’all don’t mind, I’ll think of Zack Dunlap as a “survior” rather than as a “miracle.” “Miracles” defy definition – stories of survival invite further exploration. –Stephen Drake

11 thoughts on ““Brain dead” man “comes alive” – a miracle, naturally

  1. I hope you can join our community “Support People with Disabilities” on Change.org.

    http://www.change.org/changes/view/2154

    Thanks,
    Will H.

  2. Will,

    I allowed this comment this one time, but in general, I delete advertisements for blogs, websites, etc. unless there is some actual commentary related to the blogpost included.

    I checked out your site – it looks good but I wish you had more info on it about who you are and what your mission is.

    Please share some thoughts or point us to related material on your site next time you comment here. –Stephen

  3. http://health.yahoo.com/news/reuters/tb_spread_dc.html

    NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – The transmission of tuberculosis from a donor organ to a transplant recipient may result in spread of the bacteria outside of the lungs, leading to a wide-spread infection, which may result in unusual symptoms that can make diagnosis difficult. Early recognition of the infection is “critical, as demonstrated by three cases described in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

    Dr. V. Kohli, at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, and colleagues report that a 46-year-old organ donor had been hospitalized three times in the 6 months before his death in early June 2007 for presumed aspiration pneumonia

    He had a history of alcoholism, homeless, and incarceration, but tuberculin skin tests were negative. Three weeks after his death, a culture from the fluid in his spine grew Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes TB.

    My comments
    LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT:
    They give people with alcoholism, homeless, and former jail birds ORGANS FOR DONATION. However, I bet that a person with developmental disabilities similar to my son WOULD NOT GET AN ORGAN. I bet they’d be quick to give my son’s organs to the former alcoholic-jail bird-homeless man though, huh?

    Fair?

    Kathy MN

  4. kathy,

    If I read that article correctly, the person who was homeless, an alcoholic and a history of incarceration was the donor, not the recipient.

    I would guess that the individual described would have a chance between zero and less than zero of actually being considered as a recipient. Although people with a history of drug or alcohol abuse can be candidates for getting a donor organ, they have to be drug/alcohol free for a prolonged period of time.

  5. My friend has declared “brain dead” too.. he was bang by a drunk driver in Singapore on Dec.15, 2009, 3am… its going to a week after the incident and he is still not awake… he has just married a month ago. and he is only 30 this year. he is such a nice guy. his wife, family members and friends still need him so much. We are praying for miracle can happen on him too.. We hope Jesus can bring him back to us… Any information that you could share and I truly wish that my friend can be as lucky as u….

  6. He is a true miracle, because brain death is something severe, his conditions didnt sound at all like he would survive, but i’m sure his whole family had faith, faith in God, God is what saved him, he did not and couldn’t have survived that!!

    • my mother gone for walk and all of sudden she left dizziens and she fall down on road which hurt on head back side,with 15 minutes ambulance came. she was admitted in hospital,first ct scan showed nothing,then morning she was not alble to get up then neurology doctor declare her as brain death, but we observe her leg and hand have some jig movement.these haven on 04 oct
      v

  7. My daughter was hit by a car. She suffered severe brain trauma. She was immediately diagnosed brain dead therefore nothing was done for her to relieve brain swelling except mannitol and put on a ventilator. My daughter lived for five days. I believe she was never brain dead, but in a coma. My goal is to make people aware of this horrible death sentence. I just cannot understand how this type of care is considered legal. when someone is diagnosed with cancer, a fatal disease, the medical community does everything in its power to heal that person. what is the differnce when someone is seen hopeless as in brain dead. why not do the procedures that can relieve the pressure off someone brain. Maybe it has to do with harvesting organs. Organs can only be harvested from brain dead people. I am praying that the public will wake up, we are supposed to do everything in our power to save a life even when it looks hopeless.

  8. 13 year old boy like a brother to me was shot in the head 2 days ago. They have pronounced him brain dead and he is living off machines they have already had the parents sign for organ donation and will do one final brain scan today before pulling the plug. This story makes me hope to God they diagnosed him right also that if not he proves. Them wrong before its to late

  9. […] 2008, there was the “miraculous” story of Zack Dunlap, who showed signs of movement shortly after being declared brain dead and being readied for organ […]

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