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Coma vs. Brain Dead: What Is the Difference?

Mellino Law Firm
Coma vs. Brain Dead: What Is the Difference?

Those of us who don’t work in the medical field aren’t likely to understand the difference between brain death and a coma. Both of these terms elicit images of someone lying in a hospital bed on life support, perhaps with family and loved ones gathered around. However, there is a very clear distinction between someone who is brain dead and someone who is in a coma: someone in a coma is considered legally alive.

If you are interested in learning the differences between these two medical conditions, make sure you understand the legal and medical implications of each.

The Characteristics of a Coma

When someone suffers a serious brain injury, usually due to a work accident, a stroke, physical assault, a fall, a car accident, or some other type of damaging incident, they could fall into a coma as a result. Someone in a coma will be unresponsive, though they will show some signs of brain activity when an external stimulus is present. However, if the individual is in a deep coma, it is possible they could become brain dead if the damage to their brain remains the same or worsens.

With time, someone in a coma may improve their condition, or they might even recover completely once the damage to their brain heals. However, even if someone wakes from a coma, it is likely they will require extensive physical therapy and medical care.

Defining Brain Death

When someone is brain dead, it means he or she shows no signs of neurological life. The brain is an extremely complex organ, and as such, it can be difficult to fully understand each of its functions. Generally speaking, the brain sends electrical impulses, also called brain activity, in both the lower and upper brain. If a doctor suspects that a patient may be brain dead, he or she will perform some type of external stimulus to trigger an electrical response within the brain. If there is no response, the doctor will analyze the patient for the key components of any brain dead diagnosis.

To be pronounced brain dead, the individual must be:

  • In a coma and completely unresponsive for an extended period of time
  • Lacking involuntary responses to external stimuli
  • Unable to breath when disconnected from a respirator

Legal Implications

Brain damage can occur as the result of serious trauma to the head or lack of oxygen to the brain. In some cases, someone who suffers a stroke might fall into a coma or become brain dead because the brain was traumatized. In other cases, a car accident, physical assault, birth injury, a surgical error, or some other incident might result in severe brain damage. If a doctor or medical facility ultimately caused the damage that led your loved one to fall into a coma or become brain dead, you may be eligible to file a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Regardless of the reason, it is the doctor’s job to treat the injured person with the utmost care. If a doctor fails to perform to the best of his or her ability and makes a mistake diagnosing a person in a coma or someone who is brain dead, it could cause the patient further harm or might even result in their death.

If someone is in a coma, they can be semi-aware of their surroundings, and they may even be able to hear and feel what is going on around them. For example, someone in a light coma might be able to feel their loved one holding their hand, though they may be unable to physically respond. If that individual were pronounced brain dead by mistake and their life support is removed, it could put them in an exceedingly dangerous situation.

Do You Have a Medical Malpractice Case?

Doctors and hospitals have a responsibility to their patients. When a medical professional makes a serious mistake or is negligent, they could be liable for the resulting damage. Legally speaking, a doctor can be held responsible for a patient’s brain damage if the doctor failed to diagnose the problem in time, did not provide adequate treatment, or if the doctor provided poor treatment.

If someone you love became brain dead or fell into a coma and you believe medical negligence had a part in their condition, our firm may be able to help.

Contact The Mellino Law Firm LLC to discuss your case with our Cleveland medical malpractice lawyers.


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