Exploring the definitions of death

PARIS - The term “clinically dead” applied to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak after a stroke, but then swiftly changed by doctors to “coma", is used when a person’s heart, lungs and brain have all stopped working.

A person in a coma, on the other hand, even on life support, may still have some brain activity, breathe on their own or have a regular heart beat.

There are different stages of coma, however – the final of which is termed “irreversible” and is just another way of saying that a person is, in fact, dead.

The legal and scientific definition of death is a topic that has not ceased to cause debate.

To add to the confusion, there exists an array of apparently synonymous terms – brain death, biological death, vegetative state...

Whereas in the past the lack of a heart beat or spontaneous breathing was enough to lead to a declaration of death, that changed with the advent of resuscitation techniques like CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and defibrillation, organ transplants, and life support machines.

A case in point is former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who slipped into a coma after suffering a massive stroke on January 4, 2006, and is still alive more than six years later.

State news agency MENA earlier reported that Mubarak, 84, was declared clinically dead after suffering a stroke in prison.

But a medical source later told AFP the ousted leader was in a coma on life support in a Cairo hospital.

Doctors use the term clinical death to signal there is no hope of resuscitation after a person has stopped breathing on their own, their heart has stopped beating and their brain shows no signs of activity (brain dead).

In many countries, this is a requirement for permission to be granted for a patients’ organs to be harvested for transplant.

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