Maggie’s Powerful Story Raises Troubling Questions about How People with Serious Intellectual Disabilities are Diagnosed and Cared For

Comment: I saw this myself even in the early 1970s (before “vegetable” became a diagnosis) when some of our trauma and coma patients unexpectedly started to respond when we talked to and cared for them as if they were fully awake. We were surprised and humbled when we saw some of these so-called “hopeless” patients recover and resume their lives. N. Valko RN, 1 May 2016] As the tragedy of Terri Schindler Schiavo’s death by starvation illustrates, euthanasia advocates have long been quick to dismiss as worthless the lives of those people with intellectual and physical disabilities they label with the dehumanizing term “vegetative.” Even as Canada explicitly targets people with disabilities through legalized active euthanasia; and the campaign to expand the states in which assisted suicide is legal in the U.S. continues, iconoclastic physicians are instead demonstrating the potential to communicate with and provide assistive technology and rehabilitative services to this stigmatized population. In an article from the May 6, 2016, Newsweek Magazine entitled, “Given the right stimuli, brain activity in patients in persistent vegetative states can bear similarity to non-injured people,” author Don Heupel highlights two separate but related issues related to serious brain injuries. The first problem is the large number of patients whose brain injuries are misdiagnosed. The second is that these improper diagnoses lead to patients who could greatly benefit from therapies being denied these services on the mistaken basis that they would not work. What is worse, countless numbers of these patient’s erroneous diagnoses have meant an early death. The Newsweek article focuses on Maggie Worthen, a young woman who was set to...


A report issued by the federal Institute of Medicine (IOM) said that most people will receive at least one wrong or delayed diagnosis in their lifetimes that could result in missed treatments or even death. “Diagnostic errors persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients,” researchers wrote. These errors contribute to approximately 10% of patient deaths and are, according to the report, “the leading type of paid malpractice claims and are almost twice as likely to have resulted in the patient’s death compared to other claims.” What the report didn’t say, however, is that, in states where doctor-prescribed suicide is legal, a misdiagnosis of terminal illness can cause a patient to request and take legally prescribed lethal drugs and die, when the patient was not terminally ill in the first place. The IOM report said that improving the diagnostic process is imperative, otherwise “diagnostic errors will likely worsen as the delivery of health care and the diagnostic process continue to increase in complexity.” [IOM, “Improving Diagnosis in Health Care,” 9/15] [