In a recent article by Newsweek, journalist Aimee Swartz delves into the hot-button issue of medically vulnerable patients, often callously labeled as “vegetables,” and how medical testing has proven that in many cases these patients are living on the edge of consciousness.
Swartz introduces her article by spotlighting Maggie Worthen, a healthy 22-year-old on the verge of college graduation, who suffered a massive stroke that resulted in what doctors claimed to be an unconscious state.
After being declared “vegetative” and abandoned by her insurance company, Maggie was left to the care of a local nursing home. According to Swartz, over time Maggie’s mother “began to notice Maggie do things that made her believe there was more going on in her mind than doctors claimed: laughing at her boyfriend’s jokes, crying when a moving poem was read aloud.”
Finding a doctor that would finally take Maggie’s condition seriously was the hardest part. But once the family found one, Maggie was transported to Weill Cornell Medical College to undergo clinical trials for those recovering from severely injured brains. In a shocking turn of events (well, to everyone but Maggie’s family), the studies proved that Maggie could, and actually would, respond to inquiries made by medical personnel using eye movement.
This meant that Maggie was no longer labeled as a patient in an unconscious state – she was now bumped up to “minimally conscious.”
The Newsweek article uses Maggie’s story as a jumping off point to explain how the latest research is showing that even patients deemed “unconscious” can, in some cases, be rehabilitated. It’s all a matter of whether or not the patient is on the fortunate end of medical attention with knowledgeable doctors and the right diagnostic tools available.
Sadly, this story harkens back to another, more infamous, case concerning a patient who was deemed medically vulnerable. Terri Schiavo who had been ignorantly dubbed a “vegetable,” despite her family’s adamant protests and medical documents contesting the issue, was ultimately made to suffer an unconscionable death.
According to Bobby Schindler, the brother of Terri Schiavo and president of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, “Like Maggie Worthen, during my sister’s brief rehabilitative period, she began to improve before her husband Michael unilaterally cut off that treatment. This improvement wasn’t merely the contention of my parents or me. It’s improvement that was documented in my sister’s medical records — her starting to speak on her own with responses like, “Mommy” when seeing our mother, or “stop” when experiencing pain, in addition to other simple words. These concrete signs of improvement are exactly the sort of improvement so many contend is impossible for patients marginalized as “vegetables,” and why I’m so pleased that Newsweek is highlighting their struggle.”
These two cases only further prove that the struggle is all too real for victims of serious brain injuries and demonstrates how they often get swept under the rug, in favor of more “easily understandable” medical cases.