Kate, 36, communicates through a keyboard. Scientists have shown for the first time that a person diagnosed as being in a vegetative state can communicate.
In 1997, when Kate was 26, she caught an acute viral infection. It was so serious that it confined her to a vegetative state for six months.
While she was in hospital, unresponsive and seemingly unaware of her surroundings, Cambridge neuroscientist Dr Adrian Owen, who went on to make this latest discovery, scanned her brain. He showed her familiar photographs, and realised from her brain activity that she was aware of the images that had been placed in front of her. As the months went on, and Dr Owen repeated the experiment, he found that Kate was becoming increasingly aware.
The first memories she had, she says, lasted for a few minutes when her occupational therapist came in. “I could not move my face, so I could not show people how scared I was. Not being able to communicate was awful – I felt trapped inside my body. I had loads of questions, like ‘Where am I?’, ‘Why am I here?’, ‘What has happened?’.”
She said the scans changed everything. “I just have to look and see what the scans did for me. They found I was there inside my body that did not respond.”
Her parents, Bill and Gill Bainbridge, whom Kate lives with in Cambridgeshire, agree. “The scan meant an enormous amount to us,” says Gill. “Up until then it had been very difficult for us to cope with the fact that she was in this vegetative state, and although she could do small things like move her finger or twist her neck, we didn’t actually know what was going on with Kate. After the scan, the doctors were able to tell us for the first time that Kate’s brain was processing things.”
It took Kate a further two years to recover full consciousness, and according to Gill, Kate has continued to improve over the years. Kate thinks her recovery was spurred on by the scans.
She said: “I think the work Dr Owen is doing is so important. I can remember how awful it was to be like I was. It really scares me to think what could have happened if I hadn’t had the scan.”
[Rebecca Morelle, BBC, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/5321460.stm, 7 September 2006]