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A judge rejected a family’s plea that a 53-year-old woman in a supposed vegetative state should be allowed to die — at least until she is given a drug that could wake her up.

Sir Mark Potter, president of the High Court Family Division, says the woman should be given zolpidem, a common sleeping pill. It has been used before on victims of severe brain damage who have then regained consciousness.

The woman, who cannot be named, suffered a massive brain haemorrhage on holiday in August 2003 and has been diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state.

Sir Mark ruled that doctors should try giving her the drug before a final decision has to be made on whether to stop giving her food and water artificially, and let her die.

His decision was supported by the Official Solicitor Laurence Oates who represents PVS patients when their families seek permission to allow them to die.

A spokesman said Mr Oates, who has now retired, thought the woman should be given zolpidem to test if she could ‘wake up.’

He said: “It was a very difficult case, but Mr Oates believed that before anyone is allowed to die every test possible should be carried out.”

Sir Mark is believed to have also heard evidence from experts who look after severely brain-damaged patients.

It is the first time a ruling has been made to keep a PVS patient alive in order to use the drug. The case follows new Government guidelines, revealed by the Daily Mail on Saturday, which tell doctors they risk being put on trial for assault if they refuse to allow patients who have made ‘living wills’ to die.

The Lord Chancellor told the medical profession that those who do not follow the wills could face jail or big compensation claims in the court.

In a guide to Labour’s Mental Capacity Act, which comes into operation next spring, Lord Falconer said living wills must be enforced. PVS patients are described as ‘awake but not aware’. Unlike patients in a coma their eyes are open but they see nothing and are not conscious of their surroundings.

They breathe normally but have no swallowing reflex and have to be kept alive by artificial feeding and hydration.

In 1993 the courts sanctioned the withdrawal of feeding from Tony Bland, a 21-year-old brain-damaged survivor of the Hillsborough football ground disaster. The case went to the House of Lords where law lords ruled it was in his best interests to be allowed to die and said doctors could lawfully stop artificial feeding because they would not be killing him, but withdrawing treatment.

Since then the High Court has sanctioned the withdrawal of food and drink from dozens of PVS patients when doctors, families and the Official Solicitor have agreed that death was in the patient’s best interests.


Zolpidem has been used in South Africa with amazing results. One recipient is 32-year-old Miss X, who cannot be named for legal reasons. She suffered four cardiac arrests and hypoxia – a lack of oxygen to the brain – after contracting septicaemia four years ago.

Without the pill, she can barely stand, her arms are in spasm and she cannot speak, although her intelligence has not been affected. But after being given a dose of the drug she can stand up, stretch to her full height and clap her hands.

The left side of her face is no longer drooping and her eyes sparkle. She smiles broadly and can even use a keyboard to communicate with people, telling them how she now hopes to speak again.

[20Nov06, The Daily Mail, Lucy Ballinger]