Is it humane to sustain life at all costs?

Dr Andy Ho's article ("Do not leave definition of death just to doctors"; last Saturday) on the definition of "brain death" and the current argument on why such individuals may not be really "dead" has made me and many of my colleagues in the medical profession uncomfortable, especially among those of us who deal with such patients on a frequent basis.

The very notion that doctors have some sort of a hidden agenda to "free up" intensive care unit beds and "increase the supply of organs" can be, at best, hurtful. The article almost implied that when a doctor talks to the family of a person who has irretrievable neurological damage, his or her objective is to obtain these precious resources.

I do not want to dwell on the ideas of "dead" and "alive", as Dr Ho has outlined that they are indeed nebulous notions. However, I do not believe that the ability to digest, defecate, mount a fever or even breathe on one's own necessarily means that an existence is to be continued indefinitely at great human and/or financial cost.

The inability of such a patient to reliably perceive, formulate a thought and express an idea is as real as it can get. We should not debate whether an existence without these higher human functions should be considered as living, nor judge whether it is futile or worthwhile.

Instead, we should ask ourselves whether it is humane to sustain such an impoverished existence at all costs.

Venkatachalam Jonathen (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2015, with the headline 'Is it humane to sustain life at all costs?'. Print Edition | Subscribe