Witnessing tests for brain stem death may help relatives cope with their loss

December 13, 2000

The majority of health care professionals involved in testing for brain stem death believe that allowing relatives to be present during testing may help them to understand that death has occurred and may assist the grieving process, finds a study in this week's BMJ.

Bonner and colleagues surveyed 147 consultants and 167 senior nurses in neurotrauma intensive care units. Although only 37 consultants and 54 senior nurses had experience of relatives being present during testing for brain stem death, two thirds (69%) felt that this was helpful for relatives and 48% thought that relatives may also gain comfort from being present. However, major potential problems such as spinal reflexes (85%) and dealing with relatives' distress (70%) must be anticipated. Forty-five per cent of respondents said they would be more willing to allow the presence of relatives if adequate support was available.

At present, a minority of doctors and nurses invite relatives to observe testing for brain stem death. More may consider doing so in the future. However, it remains to be seen whether allowing relatives to observe testing is beneficial, and the associated problems should not be underestimated, conclude the authors.
Contact: Stephen Bonner, Consultant, Intensive Care Unit, South Cleveland Hospital, Middlesbrough, UK Tel: 44-1642-854-539 Fax: 44-1642-854 335 Email: Steve.Bonner@btinternet.com

(Presence of relatives during testing for brain stem death: questionnaire study) BMJ Volume 321, pp 1505-1506

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