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Toronto Family of Toronto man declared brain dead wins injunction to keep him on life support

The family of a Toronto man who was declared brain dead after suffering an asthma attack has obtained a temporary injunction to keep him on life support while it fights to have his death certificate revoked on religious grounds.

Shalom Ouanounou's father, who is also his substitute decision-maker, filed an application with the court arguing that the 25-year-old is not dead under the laws of Orthodox Judaism, the faith he practises.

The injunction granted Wednesday means Ouaounou will be kept on a ventilator and feeding tube as the family challenges the existing medical guidelines that lay out when a person is considered brain dead, the family's lawyer said after a hearing in a Toronto court.

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Hugh Scher said the decision comes as a great relief to the family. "They were going to pull the plug tomorrow," he said.

The crux of the case is whether the Canadian guidelines on brain death should make accommodations for those whose religion "precludes and rejects the idea, the notion of brain death," Scher said.

Similar accommodations are built into the legal definition of death in some parts of the U.S., including New York State and New Jersey, he said.

The established Canadian guidelines define death as the irreversible cessation of brain function and of the capacity to breathe, while Orthodox Judaism considers death to be complete cardiac and respiratory failure, according to the family's application.

The application argues that disregarding those beliefs would represent a serious assault on Ouanounou's human dignity and religious liberty. "Shalom would suffer the ultimate irreparable harm in the event that this application is not granted," the document says.

"He would be declared dead in a manner contrary to his religious values and would be deprived of accommodation of his most fundamental constitutional and human rights when he is most dependent on them."

Ouanounou, 25, had an asthma attack at home on Sept. 27 and was taken by ambulance to Humber River Hospital, where he was placed on a respirator, the document says.

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Three days later, doctors determined that he met the standards for death by neurological criteria, better known as brain death, it says. A death certificate was issued shortly afterward.

Ouanounou's family is not asking that he be kept on life support indefinitely and is aware that he could meet his religion's definition of death before the case is resolved, Scher said.

Nonetheless, the lawyer said, "both the family and the community are committed to having this question addressed because it does have broader implications."

The hospital did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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