Asylum seeker’s ‘brain death’ shows failure of care and of democracy

By Ian Kerridge, University of Sydney and David Isaacs, University of Sydney

The news that Hamid Kehazaei, a 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker detained on Manus Island, has been diagnosed as brain dead following his transfer to the Mater Hospital in Brisbane is a tragedy. That it is a tragedy for this young man and his family is unquestionable – but the extent of this tragedy may be much more pervasive than we realise.

If the emerging details of his case are correct, Kehazaei developed septicaemia as a complication of cellulitis (skin and soft-tissue infection) arising from a cut in his foot. This, in itself, is disturbing.

Severe infection can result in brain death – either from infection of the brain itself (meningitis, encephalitis or brain abscess), or from brain injury due to a lack of oxygen resulting from cardiac arrest (as appears to be the case here), or from reduced blood supply to the brain. Yet it is very uncommon, especially in a young, previously healthy man.

Such a case could occur in Australia and has been described in 2012 in young Indigenous adults in Central Australia. Nevertheless, severe sepsis resulting from a foot infection is preventable. And a case like this occurring in an Australian national would raise serious questions about the appropriateness of the antibiotics used and the timeliness of care.

Most cases of brain death result from traumatic brain injury, stroke or lack of oxygen to the brain following asphyxia, near-drowning, or prolonged cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

What happened to Hamid Kehazaei raises concerns about the adequacy of care provided to him during initial treatment, including wound care and antibiotics, and how soon he was transferred to expert medical care, first to Port Moresby and subsequently to Brisbane.

If this young man became ill and had his brain die while seeking asylum in Australia and while in our care, then we must examine the details of his case and ask ourselves not only whether it was preventable but whether our policies and processes actually contributed to his death.

But how can we even begin to ask these types of questions when we know so little about the circumstances in which he became ill, and his subsequent care?

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