Life/ Death

The phrase “culture of medicine” is difficult to strictly define, since it is made up of many different things. The main idea behind the “culture of medicine,” however, is that biomedical practices vary across cultures, and these differences can be studied by learning about the history, language, and rituals behind those practices. This, according to lecture 5.1 will help anthropologists learn how biomedical facts and models have changed over time, social values that have become natural or scientific, and has also helped to reveal different customs of both patients and professionals living in different societies. This means that the culture of biomedicine has to be both universal and objective, or in other words, it has to reflect nature and fact. Finally, we must also consider something we have been reminded of over and over throughout this course- health is not only influenced by biology, but also through culture, politics, environment, and individual choice.

The dichotomy I chose to evaluate was that of life and death. According to the Merriam- Webster dictionary and the lecture, life can be defined in many ways. These including “the quality that distinguishes a vital and function being from a dead body,” “an organismic state characterized by capacity for metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction,” or “a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings (Mariamm- Webster).” I believe that life is a combination of many different “definitions” and that there is no clear one that stands out. Taking a look at the definitions of death from the Marriam- Webster dictionary, there are also many perpectives. Some of these include “a permanent cessation of all vital functions,” or “the cause or occasion of loss of life.” After comparing these words, life and death, it is difficult to say whether death is when the brain dies, the body dies, or when the person takes their last breath; like the lecture asks. If I had to define human death, I would have to say a person is dead when they stop breathing, all the cells in the body are dead, and the body/brain is no longer functioning.

I believe that this dichotomy is accepted as both logical and natural. Although death can be difficult to face, it is a natural bodily process that must occur. I am sure throughout many different cultures, there are many different cultural and spiritual debates on what death really is, but logic takes over and people know when someone has died. Life, also highly debated, is an amazing thing that is very difficult to place a definition on. Life and death have been debated for a long time, and I do not see that debate ending anytime soon.




Lecture 5.1

6 thoughts on “Life/ Death

  1. It is important for clinicians to understand this dichotomy because obviously they have to know whether a person is alive or not in order to know what to do next as far as treatment. Being alive or dead has many definitions. Some people think that people hooked up to a life-support machine are actually dead because their heart would not be beating if it wasn’t for the machine. Other people think that they are still alive simply because their heart is still beating.

    Life and death are two very subjective topics. If clinicians take these two for granted as just simply fact; either your heart beats or it doesn’t, there could possibly be many miscommunications in the hospitals. There would be patients with just some type of heart murmur or heart condition that would be considered “dead” or “alive” depending on the clinicians beliefs.

    An alternative way to conceptualize this is to simply make it aware to clinicians and medical professionals that life and death could have multiple meanings and that all of the factors should be considered when trying to determine if a person is dead or alive. The benefits of doing this goes perfectly with the life support machine example. The benefit is, when all possible factors to determine life or death are brainstormed in this type of situation, the person might actually be able to get off of life support even though some think that this is the only reason why they are “alive.” The drawback is that sometimes a person is just going to die regardless of every possible factor is weighed and considered.

  2. Like you, I think that the dichotomy between life and death is very contentious. Since people have so many different views on what constitutes life, it is crucial that clinicians take the individual beliefs of each patient and family into consideration. If a particular physician takes for granted that everyone shares his own perspective of life and death, his prognosis for a patient in a coma, for example, could conflict with the beliefs of that patient’s family. Thus the distress of losing a loved one would be deepened by having a medical authority proclaim death before the family was ready or able to accept it.
    An alternative way to consider life and death is to look at the spectrum between these two extremes in perspective of “quality of life,” another contentious issue of our times. Many people, even those in health, would consider certain levels of mental and physical function necessary to make living worthwhile. One potential benefit of putting quality of life ahead of maintaining longevity at all costs is seen in hospice care. In this branch of medical care that focuses on maintaining the comfort and emotional welfare of terminal patients, a patient and her family are better able to accept death and appreciate her remaining life. A drawback of focusing on quality of life is that it brings up the possibility of medically-assisted suicide. The proponents of this practice argue that patients should have the ultimate authority in determining what quality of life they find unacceptable. However, most of the public argues that physicians’ primary role is to heal and promote life, not death.

  3. Life and death is a tough dichotomy to assess, because I feel that even within a particular culture there are a number of different viewpoints. It is a hugely important dichotomy for clinicians to understand however. Many of a doctor’s patients may fall somewhere within the gray area between life and death, and they have to use this information to decide if they can give treatment or not. For instance, does the lack of a heartbeat denote death, or lack of brain waves, or something else entirely? Does life begin at conception, or when a fetus is viable, or some other time? If a clinician doesn’t consider or understand these multiple aspects of the dichotomy, they could cause serious miscommunication with both the hospital staff as to how they will be treating (or not treating) the patient. It’s also important for these physicians to understand that their patients may have different viewpoints about life and death than they do. Rather than a dictionary definition, I think an alternative way to conceptualize the dichotomy should be entirely subjective to the cultural context. The way a certain group of people describes life/death has to make sense in their belief system and social system. A benefit to using life/death descriptions only within a cultural context is that it allows people to understand that there are multiple meanings and understandings of the dichotomy. Drawbacks to this could be that it’s hard to make cross-cultural comparisons of life/death, and also difficult for clinicians to have a standard method of treatment for all patients.

  4. The life and death dichotomy is probably the most significant dichotomy in healthcare. It is a very complicated issue and has a vast array of definitions depending on the patient’s culture. In my opinion, quality of life should play a large factor in determining life or death. Keeping someone alive at the cost of quality of life, in my opinion, is not living at all. Saying a person is dead, only when and if they stop breathing is simply too basic a definition when dealing with such a complex issue. As far as why this dichotomy is so important, obviously clinicians need to be able to determine whether or not a person is alive. This has a direct effect on whether or not treatment is necessary. It also determines what kind of treatment is suitable for that specific patient, depending on what condition they are in. If this dichotomy is taken for granted as fact, a number of outcomes could occur. Cultural boundaries could be crossed, ignorance could be blunt and quality of life could be affected.
    An alternative way to conceptualize the life and death dichotomy would be to define life and death on the patient’s terms. Allowing the patient to have full autonomy could ensure quality of life in long term care mostly. It could also have negative effects in patients who are mentally ill.

  5. The seeming dichotomy of life and death is very important for clinicians to understand. As mentioned in lecture, there are several different ways that people can be defined as dead whether it be as brain dead, the moment your heart stops beating, or the moment you take your last breath. It is important that physicians understand that patients will all have different ideas about what constitutes death so that they can be respectful to the wishes of their patients and their families. If they take this for granted they may end up disrespecting a persons beliefs about death, which may lead to their death being deemed shameful or unclean according to certain cultural beliefs. This can go both ways. First, they may keep a patient alive through life support when that is seen as unnatural. On the other hand, others may be offended if the doctor does not do everything possible to keep the body alive, even if considered brain dead. I think that rather than looking at this as a dichotomy, it would be better for doctors to take the time to get an individual understanding of the difference between life and death for each patient. Life or death is not so simple that there can only be two options. It can be seen as more like a spectrum, similar to one of the models of gender. Taking this approach would greatly reduce doctors’ chances of offending patients’ beliefs. A drawback would come along possibly if the doctor and patient did not agree on the point of death and one of them thought the other was giving up the chance of life or prolonging it too far.

  6. This dichotomy is critical in deciding the type of care to provide to an individual. As well as carrying out the steps of care that the patient would want. By knowing that your patient views death as the end of controlling basic life processes (such as breathing, ingesting nutrients, etc) on their own that is something that you respect even if you as the clinician believe that someone is still alive if they are using life support measures. This is a very controversial dichotomy for clinicians to follow as we saw in the Supreme Court hearings roughly 5 years ago when the family had disagreements about taking a women off of life support. It is also critical to define the lines of life and death for determine normal care measures during things like surgeries and giving medications.

    Not understanding and respecting the lines between life and death can have some long lasting results. Some of which can cause a lawsuit against a clinician due to a change in the quality of life for the patient. For example when a clinician continues care after they have already lost the ability to breathe could in the patient’s eyes lower their quality of life because they have to use a breathing tube.

    Another possible way of looking at this dichotomy is to consider the definition of life differently. Possibly considering some still alive if they need machines to help them live because they cannot breathe on their own.

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