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Kirschen Profile

Pediatric Neurocritical Care Physician Dr. Matthew Kirschen Helped Update the Brain Death Determination Guidelines; Now He Teaches Them Nationally

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Matthew Kirschen, MD, PhD, helped write the revised guidelines for the determination of brain death that are being adopted by hospitals across the United States and is a nationally renowned teacher on topics related to brain death. Dr. Kirschen is an Associate Professor in Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Pediatrics, and Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and the Associate Director of Pediatric Neurocritical Care at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

“I was part of a group that revised the medical guidelines for the determination of brain death,” says Dr. Kirschen. “This was an opportunity to update the guidelines incorporating data from the past ten years, combining guidance for adults and children into a single document, and more explicitly laying out the procedural steps for the determination of brain death.” The group, which included experts from the American Academy of Neurology, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Child Neurology Society, and the Society of Critical Care Medicine, published their consensus report in the journal Neurology in October 2023.

“I teach nationally and internationally on how to perform the brain death evaluation in children,” says Dr. Kirschen. He and a team of colleagues teach courses for physicians and other health care providers about how to conduct the medical procedures to make the diagnosis of brain death. “Our courses are based in simulation where we use mannequins to teach examination techniques and role-play scenarios to teach communication strategies,” says Dr. Kirschen. “We offer the training through professional societies including the American Academy of Neurology and the Neurocritical Care Society, and at various hospitals.”

He is a member of the Neurocritical Care Society Brain Death Toolkit Task Force who in early April released an updated Brain Death Toolkit that incorporates principles from the 2023 revised practice guidelines. He is also the lead investigator for a national pediatric brain death registry that collects data to characterize current practices for brain death determination to improve the process in future iterations of guidelines.

Dr. Kirschen, who represents the Society of Critical Care Medicine on the Organ Donation and Transplantation Alliance’s (The Alliance) Board of Directors, has participated in two of The Alliance’s Advancement Series webinars on brain death: Beyond Diagnosis: Understanding the Legal and Ethical Implications of the 2023 Brain Death Guidelines in March 2023 and Navigating the 2023 Brain Death Guidelines: A Comprehensive Review in March 2024. Both sessions are available on-demand. In 2023, he received The Alliance’s Rising Leader award; he also served on the planning committees for The Alliance’s 2021 National Donor Management Summit and the 2023 National Pediatric Donation and Transplantation Summit.

He grew up in Orange County, CA, in Fullerton, the oldest of three children, and often spent time with his large family who lived in the Los Angeles area. “My grandmother was one of five children and her siblings also lived in LA,” says Dr. Kirschen. “So, I grew up with many cousins and we would all get together for family events, holidays and celebrations. We joked that when you invited the family, 75 people showed up.”

For college, he headed to Brandeis University in Boston to study physics and planned to go into biomedical engineering. Midway through college, his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor (she’s fine now), and he became interested in studying the brain. Through a faculty mentor he became involved in neuroscience research studying memory in children with epilepsy. “It was through that experience that I realized that taking care of patients really fascinated me and started me on my path towards medical school,” says Dr. Kirschen. That faculty mentor, Dr. Michael Kahana, now a Professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, does research on the neural underpinnings of memory.

As a child, Dr. Kirschen attended summer camp and later served as a camp counselor for many years. “The combination of that camp counselor role and wanting to work with children along with my newfound interest in the brain is what led me down the path of taking care of children with brain injury.”

After graduating from Brandeis, he returned to California to attend Stanford Medical School where he decided to become a child neurologist. He did his residency in pediatrics at Stanford and then a fellowship in pediatric neurology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “I realized as I got further into my medical training that I enjoyed taking care of kids admitted to the hospital and those with acute brain problems,” says Dr. Kirschen. “I obtained additional training in pediatric critical care medicine so I could take care of children in the ICU with acute brain injury. That allowed me to meld my interest in the physiology and high acuity aspects of critical care with knowledge from my neurology training to take care of children with problems that happen in the brain suddenly like strokes, tumors, seizures, bleeds, cardiac arrest, and trauma.”

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Dr. Kirschen met his wife when he was a medical student at Stanford, and she was a graduate student at Berkeley.  She holds a PhD in Near Eastern Studies and is the Director of Digital Scholarship at Gratz College, outside of Philadelphia. Their three children, ages 9, 11 and 13, keep them busy. Their son plays travel soccer and ultimate frisbee and their two daughters do competitive gymnastics, so most weekends find them traveling to their watch competitions.

They also hike, camp, and travel together, often with their extended family so their children can spend time with their cousins. “Our Jewish heritage and faith permeate our lives,” says Dr. Kirschen. “We send our kids to a Jewish school, they go to Jewish summer camp, and we’ve traveled to Israel as a family.” This summer, he will serve as a volunteer pediatrician at two of his children’s camps.

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Patient Care, Research and Teaching at CHOP

Dr. Kirschen has been at CHOP since 2009 and has roles as a clinician, researcher, and educator. In the pediatric ICU as an attending physician he leads a team of healthcare providers including fellows and residents, nurse practitioners, ICU nurses, respiratory therapists, and physical and occupational therapists who care for critically ill children with brain problems and other medical issues. Dr. Kirschen teaches at the bedside with residents and fellows and is the incoming director of CHOP’s Neurocritical Care Fellowship program that trains pediatric neurologists and ICU doctors to take care of brain injury in the ICU.

On days he’s not taking care of patients, he conducts research. “My particular area of research is evaluating children who have had cardiac arrest and have brain injury related to their cardiac arrest,” says Dr. Kirschen. “I study their brain in an observational way to characterize their brain injury and to evaluate therapeutic options to protect the brain from further injury and enhance a child’s recovery.” He is involved in national clinical trials investigating therapies to protect children’s brains after cardiac arrest.

Dr. Kirschen has been involved in various projects related to ethics and neuroscience over the past two decades. He is chair of the Ethics, Law and Humanities Committee, a joint committee of the American Academy of Neurology, American Neurological Association, and the Child Neurology Society that works to provide ethical guidance to members of the neurology community. “We are actively working on a number of issues including brain death, normothermic regional perfusion, driving in epilepsy, conscientious provisions of care, and other issues.”

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