NASHVILLE, Tenn. A patient said to be in a persistent vegetative state had the capacity to understand and respond to verbal commands, a team of European researchers reported in the journal Science Sept. 8.
Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, an MRI, technology to examine the brain of a woman who was critically injured in an automobile accident in July 2005. When they provided voice commands, such as instructions to imagine herself in a game of tennis, portions of the woman's brain showed a surprising amount of activity, not unlike those of healthy people who agreed to participate in the same study.
"Her decision to cooperate ... by imaging particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings," the researchers noted in the study.
The findings have rekindled the debate surrounding the 2005 starvation death of Terri Schiavo and are prompting further discussion of long-term care for brain-damaged patients. Ethicists are calling the findings further proof that, when there is doubt, the justice system should side with life. They also said the justice system had clearly erred in the Schiavo case.
Schiavo died of complications from dehydration after husband Michael Schiavo and attorney George Felos successfully argued before a Florida court to have her feeding tube disconnected. She had been receiving nutrition and hydration through a tube since her collapse and subsequent brain injury in 1990.
C. Ben Mitchell, associate professor of bioethics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a research fellow with the ERLC, said the new study is a reminder "that we know far less than we think we know about what is happening in the brain of comatose patients."
"In this case, the patient was hardly 'vegetative.' In fact, she was quite alive. A PVS diagnosis should not be a death sentence, but a cause for special care. We may well be caring for someone who is aware of every conversation, every act of compassion, and every hint of abandonment," Mitchell said.
The decision to allow Schiavo to die touched off a 12-year legal battle in which the parents of Terri Schiavo, Bob and Mary Schindler, argued that their daughter was able to respond to their voices and verbal commands, just as the patient in the most recent study had. Bob Schindler issued a statement following the publication of the findings last week.
"This new case is not surprising to our family," Schindler said. "We are seeing a growing amount of evidence indicating that the diagnosis of 'Persistent Vegetative State' is often misdiagnosed, resulting in dangerous and potentially fatal consequences for people with brain injuries, as documented in this new account of a brain injured woman. The danger of this diagnosis is that it is being used as a reason to kill innocent people with disabilities, like Terri. We believe that this PVS diagnosis is inhumane and it should be abolished."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, echoed the sentiment, saying that the PVS diagnosis could lead to a barbaric conclusion to life.
"The giving of food and water to people who are not able to feed themselves and hydrate themselves is an act of mercy and an act of charity in a civilized society. To deny access to food and water is indeed "euthanasia by omission,'" Land said, referencing the opinion of the late Pope John Paul II. Land said the practice of depriving PVS patients of nutrition and hydration should be condemned by all civilized societies.
"Just a reminder: When Terri Schiavo's feeding tube was removed, it took her about 13 days to die of dehydration, which is approximately how long it would take anyone reading these remarks to die if they were not in critical medical condition. In other words, Terri Schiavo was nowhere near death. Her death was not imminent from any medical complication. It took her as long to die as it would take any normal human being who was denied hydration," Land said.
While the authors of the study warn against drawing conclusions about all PVS patients from their study of a single patient, they agree that the patient's responses could force the use of new techniques to measure the brain activity of patients thought to have irreversible brain damage. Study author Adrian M. Owen, who led the Cambridge team of neurologists that reported the findings, told The New York Times the conclusions were "stunning."