What Is the Difference Between a Coma and Brain Death? May 20, 2015.

When someone suffers traumatic brain injury, coma and brain death are two possible outcomes. Although coma sometimes progresses to brain death, the two injured states are distinct and characterized by very different symptoms.

Coma and Vegetative State

Coma is a state of deep unconsciousness that lasts for an indeterminate length of time. While in this state, the brain continues to emit electrical impulse signals to the rest of the body, but it is working at the lowest possible level.

A vegetative state is a coma from which the patient has recovered brain stem function but not higher cognitive abilities. Such individuals can breathe and maintain their heart rates without assistance, but they cannot interact with others, and they have no conscious awareness of their environment. A vegetative state that lasts longer than a month is termed "persistent"; only in rare cases does such a patient recover full mental awareness.

Brain Death

Brain death is a clinical term, diagnosed only after a series of tests have been performed on the patient to determine whether they are able to respond to external stimuli.

A person is considered brain dead when:

  • There is no response to commands.
  • Arms and legs don’t react when they are moved.
  • The pupils fail to contract to light.
  • The eyes do not blink when the cornea is touched.
  • There is no response to a drastic temperature change in the inner ear.
  • The patient has no gag reflex.
  • The patient cannot breathe on his or her own.
  • Doctors may perform additional tests, such as an electroencephalogram, to check for brain function.

The Legal Implications

Individuals in a state of coma, no matter how severe or prolonged, are considered legally alive. Once a patient is pronounced brain dead, however, nothing more can be done for them. According to federal regulations, the family must be given to option of organ donation. If the family refuses, caregivers discontinue all artificial means of keeping the patient alive, and the heart stops beating.

If someone you love sustained a brain injury or other serious injury that rendered him or her comatose or brain dead, your family may be able to collect compensation from the person or company responsible for the event that caused the injury. Contact the team at the Mellino Law Firm to schedule a free consultation.