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One of the most painful insults inflicted on families and their loved ones who are profoundly brain-injured is describing them as being in a “persistent vegetative state.” This demeaning label was the brainchild of Dr. Fred Plum, a New York neurologist, in 1972. It demonstrates how inept the medical community has been regarding brain-injured individuals. This derogatory label has prejudiced the medical community and media to use descriptions that dehumanize these vulnerable patients even more, resulting in them being warehoused instead of treated; spoken about in derogatory fashion in their presence; and even used to justify killing them by dehydration and starvation or other forms of neglect.
Nothing jolts the medical community back to reality more than living proof that they were wrong. Since a plant doesn’t have ears and feelings, Martin Pistorious shattered the “vegetative” philosophy when after 12 years of motionless silence he escaped the trap of his body, shocking his parents and doctors. Martin said he was aware of everything going on around him. He’s now married and has written a book called Ghost Boy about his experience.
While talking about Martin’s situation with Bobby Schindler, brother of Terri Schiavo, his response to me was that these awakenings aren’t unusual. A quick Internet search proved he was right.
Many patients who were long given up on and would have died by neglect if not for loyal family members have awakened after years of silence. Rom Houben spent 23 years locked inside his body. It was 20 years for Sarah Scantlin, over 10 for Scott Routley and six for Christa Lilly, who’s repeatedly come in and out of her minimally conscious state. They are only the tip of the iceberg.
Science has made stunning breakthroughs during the past decade or so, one that’s shown over 40 percent of patients defined as “vegetative” are awake and aware of their surroundings to varying degrees. This is in direct contrast with traditional advice from doctors to family members: “Let them go.” Tragically, it often resulted in killing the patient by dehydration and starvation, which is an agonizingly brutal and prolonged way to kill a person.
Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a neurologist and Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuromodulation at Weill Cornell Medical Center, was one of four individuals who made the startling discovery using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). While being asked questions, brain-injured individuals showed a level of brain activity on par with those of healthy people. Dr. Schiff and other experts estimate 250,000 to 300,000 patients have been diagnosed as “vegetables” and many are languishing in nursing homes or residences, yearning to be free to communicate with those around them.
Another scientific advancement—be it accidental—was to give minimally conscious patients the sleep-enhancing drug known as Ambien to calm a distressed patient or one who was thrashing about. Instead of putting them to sleep, it miraculously brought them out of their coma-like condition to where they were able to converse, eat and function, albeit with limitations related to the brain injury.
At a time when the medical books are being rewritten on brain-injured patients, the only thing that’s certain is we can’t trust what our eyes and ears are telling us.
The absolute most critical lesson here can be found through a personal experience by Dr. Shiff and reported in DiscoverMagazine.com. After talking to a group of medical students, residents and doctors, a young neurologist asked the question everyone was likely contemplating. “The family often withdraws care when we say there’s no chance. Have we been killing people?” Dr. Schiff avoids directly responding to the question, but the answer is an almost certain yes.
While we were sitting around my family room with Bobby Schindler and his family, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, I considered that Terri should have been there with us. Had it not been for bigotry toward the disabled, she might have been. So might many other beloved family members. An important part of our pro-life mission is to help stop this human catastrophe.