WHAT IS A VEGETATIVE STATE?

He was brutally assaulted eight years ago when he was 30 and left in a near-vegetative state. The surgeon told his mother that he would « be a vegetable for the rest of his life. »

But now pioneering U.S. doctors are reawakening this 38-year-old man. He can chew and swallow food, drink out of a cup, raise his toothbrush and recite the first 16 words of the pledge of allegiance.

What happened? A team of doctors has used deep-brain electrical stimulation to kick-start the patient’s brain activity – a kind of pace maker for the brain. Doctors hope this treatment will have beneficial consequences for patients with Parkinson’s disease, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and epilepsy. Doctors hope this treatment will usher in a new era for people previously considered untreatable.

One of the researchers in this trial says « it is going to force skeptics to revisit the view that severe brain injury is an immutable condition. »

Does this mean that in the future a case like that of Terry Schiavo should be viewed as potentially treatable? What do ethicists say about this development? Is it a break-through in treating those in a near- vegetative state?

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2 Comments »

  1. 1
    Joanne Nicholls Says:

    I think the families should be involved in such a decision. Certainly more research and results need to be gathered to determine the quality of life should an individual re-awaken. Some people have absolutely no desire to simply be alive–it’s the quality of life that is important. On the other hand, not every person in a deep coma will be able to be awakened and false hope should not be given to families either. Regardless, it’s a sticky issue. If this research can be used to help people with other brain diseases, then the research should continue.

  2. 2
    Cate McB Says:

    « Does this mean that in the future a case like that of Terry Schiavo should be viewed as potentially treatable? »
    Yes, the accent being on the words « potentially treatable » and we need to remember that Schiavo was in a vegetative state not a « near-vegetative state ». Clear definitions of these states are needed in the public domain.

    « Is it a break-through in treating those in a near- vegetative state? »
    Yes, undoubtedly it is, although it’s not clear yet how generalizable this « break-through » is.

    « What do ethicists say about this development? » I don’t know about anyone else’s response — I’ve been too busy at the bedside in the ICU, but I think the emphasis should be on quality of life.

    For example, « He can chew and swallow food, drink out of a cup, raise his toothbrush and recite the first 16 words of the pledge of allegiance. » Is this quality of life — this combo of primitive reflexes and what I assume is early rote learning? And can this man now tell us whether this « state » constitutes quality of life for him? Or are we left with the estimations of family members? — a form of substitute decision making always problematic in these cases.

    I think we need to know a whole lot more ……….. That’s what this ethicist thinks.


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