Hosni Mubarak’s state uncertain: What is ‘clinical death’?

Conflicting reports surfaced Tuesday on the state of Hosni Mubarak after the former Egyptian president was said to have suffered a stroke in prison.

The state-run news agency MENA said that the 84-year-old Mubarak had suffered clinical death, but other reports say Mubarak was still on a respirator and not clinically dead, according to state and independent news media.

To add to the confusion, clinical death doesn’t necessarily mean total death. “Clinical death” is a medical term meaning that breathing has ceased and the heart has stopped pumping blood around the body, but, for at least a short while, the brain is still alive.

“Before brain activity could be measured, the stopping of the heart had long been considered the defining moment,” Mary Roach writes in “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.” “In point of fact, the brain survives for six to ten minutes after the heart has stopped pumping blood to it, but this is splitting hairs.”


Still, if the heart can be made to start beating during those precious few minutes -- perhaps with CPR, or using a respirator -- that person may have a chance of being revived without suffering major, irreversible brain damage.

Thus, even if a person is reported clinically dead, they may not be legally dead -- at least for a short while. Inversely, a person whose heart and lungs are still in working order but whose brain activity has ceased can be considered legally dead, often for the purposes of organ donation.

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