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