Monday, February 8, 2010

'Vegetative' patients show cognitive abilities

From the Wall Street Journal:
In a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, four of 23 patients diagnosed as being in a vegetative state showed signs of consciousness on brain-imaging tests.

Even more significantly, one patient was able to answer yes and no questions using the researchers' technique—indicating the potential for communication with people previously considered unresponsive. ...

The study, using a technique Dr. [Adrian M.] Owen first implemented in a 2006 study of brain activity in one vegetative patient, demonstrates the challenges of determining awareness in brain-damaged patients. Some estimates put misdiagnosis as high as 40%, Dr. Owen said. It's possible some of the vegetative patients in the study had some consciousness but that brain injury may have left them deaf or incapable of responding, he said.
I hope discoveries like this will make us less willing to starve and dehydrate to death "vegetative" patients like Terri Schindler Schiavo. We simply know too little to make a confident, accurate diagnosis in many cases.

But the broader problem is that we wrongly value patients for what they can do, mentally or otherwise, rather than for what they are. We see people as valuable instrumentally instead of intrinsically. So certain classes of (always vulnerable) human beings -- the unborn, sick and disabled, like Terri -- are excluded from respect and protection as part of the human family. That must change.

Terri's brother, Bobby Schindler, puts it this way: "Nobody should have to earn the right to hydration. We should do everything we can to care for these people, regardless of how responsive or unresponsive they are. We are morally obligated to care for these people."