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...

Sleeping Pill Awakens ‘PVS’ Patients (2006)

Sleeping Drug Broke Man’s 3-Year Coma A 28-year-old South African man who has been comatose since an accident three years ago is able to wake up with the unlikely help of a sleeping medication… Louis Viljoen was hit by a truck on a highway in 2003, and has been in a persistent vegetative state since with massive head injuries. The Daily Mirror reported he recently became restless, and Dr. Wally Nel prescribed the common drug Zolpidem to calm him down. Instead, Viljoen’s eyes fluttered and he awoke. The report said his brain function is improving slowly, and he is given half a dose of Zolpiden in the morning and again at noon to keep him awake for eight hours a day before he lapses back into a coma. Nel said Viljoen talks and recognizes friends, but doesn’t understand why he is hospitalized. In July, the British firm ReGen Therapeutics will begin six months of clinical trials on 30 coma patients to see if the drug works on them too, the Mirror said. [http://www.physorg.com/news68372093.html, N Valko RN, 2 June06]   Sleeping Pill Awakens ‘PVS’ Patients As reported earlier, a South African man thought to be in PVS for 3 years, was prescribed a sleeping pill to calm him down. Within 25 minutes of receiving the pill, the man awoke and began talking. Louis’ case was one of 3 such cases reported in the May 2006 issue of the medical journal NeuroRehabilitation. All 3 cases involved males around age 30 who had been in ‘PVS’ at least 3 years. All were given daily doses of Zolpidem (brand name Ambien) twice each...

PVS & Ambien (2006)

We have always been told there is no recovery from persistent vegetative state. But across three continents, severely brain-damaged patients are awake and talking after taking … a sleeping pill. And no one is more baffled than the GP who made the breakthrough. For three years, Riaan Bolton has lain motionless, his eyes open but unseeing. After a devastating car crash doctors said he would never again see or speak or hear. Now his mother, Johanna, dissolves a pill in a little water on a teaspoon and forces it gently into his mouth. Within half an hour, as if a switch has been flicked in his brain, Riaan looks around his home in the South African town of Kimberley and says, “Hello.” Shortly after his accident, Johanna had turned down the option of letting him die. Three hundred miles away, Louis Viljoen, a young man who had once been cruelly described by a doctor as “a cabbage”, greets me with a mischievous smile and a streetwise four-move handshake. Until he took the pill, he too was supposed to be in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state. Across the Atlantic in the United States, George Melendez, who is also brain-damaged, has lain twitching and moaning as if in agony for years, causing his parents unbearable grief. He, too, is given this little tablet and again, it’s as if a light comes on. His father asks him if he is, indeed, in pain. “No,” George smiles, and his family burst into tears. These awakenings have come as the result of an accidental discovery by a dedicated – and bewildered –...

Functional MRI Tests Indicate ‘PVS’ Patient Aware (2006)

PVS & Ambien: Several studies are being conducted worldwide on patients thought to be in PVS, using zolpidem (Ambien) which actually wakes up to sixty percent of these patients. Tests conducted on a 23-year-old, severely brain damaged woman—clinically diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as the result of a 2005 car accident—have provided researchers with surprising evidence that she is aware but unable to communicate that awareness. “I was absolutely stunned,” remarked lead British researcher Dr. Adrian M. Owen from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. The tests showed that “she is aware,” he said. [LA Times, 9/8/06] According to the study published in the journal Science, researchers in the U.K. and Belgium conducted functional MRI (fMRI) tests on the woman and compared the scan results with identical tests performed on 34 healthy volunteers. Unlike ordinary MRI scans which show structural brain damage, the newer, more advanced fMRI tests can measure function in specific regions of the brain. When researchers gave the woman verbal instructions, the fMRI picked up activity in the same brain areas as seen in scans of the healthy volunteers. When she was told to “imagine playing tennis,” her brain fired in the supplementary motor area that controls motor responses. In contrast, when she was asked to “imagine visiting all the rooms in your home, starting from the front door,” brain activity was seen in the areas responsible for spacial mental images. Her test results were indistinguishable from those of the 34 healthy volunteers. Researchers concluded, “These results confirm that…this patient retained the ability to understand spoken commands...

Woman Woke from Coma (2007)

After two weeks and no change Ryan Finley took his wife Jill off life support and suddenly she awoke. Imagine being 31 years old and having to make the agonizing decision to discontinue the life-support keeping your comatose spouse alive. Now imagine that spouse waking up and asking for Mexican food. “It’s crazy. It’s absolutely crazy,” Jill Finley, the woman who was supposed to die, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira during an interview Monday. “It is truly a miracle that I’m here talking to you today.” On the morning of Saturday, May 26, Jill’s husband, Ryan Finley, tried to wake her up and found her unresponsive. The couple would learn later that Jill had a congenital condition that had caused her heart to stop. When Ryan realized she wasn’t breathing, he reached back 10 years to a CPR course he had taken, dragged her out of bed and onto the floor, and started to apply those never-used lessons. He called 911 and continued to work on his lifeless wife until paramedics arrived and shocked her heart back to life. They rushed her to the Oklahoma Heart Hospital, where the medical staff put her on a respirator and dressed her in a special suit that lowered her body temperature to attempt to minimize damage to her brain caused by lack of oxygen. She was alive in that she was breathing and her heart was beating, but she was in a deep coma. Ryan, a plumbing contractor in the Oklahoma City suburb of Edmond, stayed by her side, reading the Bible to her and sometimes lying on the bed next to...