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?

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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