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I have been very unhappy about the lurid headlines in the New York Post and elsewhere about the gravely injured Natasha Richardson being “brain dead.” That is not only insensitive to her devastated family, but the term is thrown around all too loosely.

Brain death is a popular term for “death by neurological criteria,” in which various tests and patient history show that the brain and each of its constituent parts have ceased all functions as a brain. (It does not mean that every brain cell is nonfunctional.) It often gets conflated with a diagnoses of permanent unconsciousness—but is not the same as having a catastrophic brain injury. It is dead.

More responsible press reports have described Richardson as being in very critical condition or having suffered a devastating brain injury. No doubt that is true. And it is clear that irresponsible sources have used the term to reporters, as vulture like, they worm their way into a major celebrity story. But to call someone dead when it isn’t clear that her demise has actually taken place, is not only wrong, it is cruel.

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