Human Exceptionalism

A Miracle or a Mistake?

Zack Dunlap was apparently killed in an auto accident and his organs were going to be procured, when he “came back.” From the story:

Natalie Morales: What did the doctors tell you at that point?

Pam Dunlap: She just said it wasn’t good.

Doug Dunlap: She said brain matter was coming from Zack’s ear.

Pam Dunlap: All I can remember is just being down on my knees saying, you know, “No. No, God, no. This isn’t going to happen.” Zack was Medivac’ed to a hospital 50 miles away, in Wichita Falls, Texas–one equipped to deal with traumatic brain injury…
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. Tough as it was, the Dunlaps decided against keeping Zack on long-term artificial life support.

The Dunlaps agreed to organ donation. But they also turned to God and prayed for a miracle. That’s when Zack’s condition appeared to change. A nurse scraped his foot and he reacted. From the story:

Natalie Morales: As a trauma surgeon and seeing this 21-year-old coming back to life, do you have any sort of medical explanation that you know of?

Dr. Mercer: I don’t.

Natalie Morales: Were any mistakes made, or was the process rushed along in any way to declare him brain dead because the family made you aware that he was an organ donor?

Dr. Mercer: No. We didn’t rush anything along. We certainly don’t do that.

Pam Dunlap: We saw the test. We saw it. They followed every procedure. He was gone.

Natalie Morales: So there is no blame?

Pam Dunlap: There’s no blame in a miracle. And there never will be for us.

I understand why Pam Dunlap would embrace the miracle, but we should be more skeptical. This much is sure: Either it was a miracle–which raises interesting issues in itself–or Zack wasn’t really and truly dead.

Which it is matters a whole lot. Thus, Zack’s “miracle” should not be left as a wonderful and heart warming television story. It needs a deep and meticulous investigation to ensure the public that a living man was not prematurely declared dead. Or, if he was legitimately declared dead, we need to be assured that the criteria used were appropriate. If they were appropriate, we also need to know whether they need to be reviewed. For example, was enough time allowed to pass from initial declaration of brain death until a second confirming test? Was there a second test?

In any event, leaving it as a “miracle”–even if it turns out to be true–just won’t do. Answers based on the records and the scientific knowledge of this matter are clearly required to make sure that if God was not involved, that what almost happened to Zack doesn’t happen again.

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