Bioethics News

Brain Injury and the Civil Right We Don’t Think About

August 25, 2017

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And there was something else: She at times was able to use her left eye to answer simple yes or no questions. That morning, she seemed to relish her new found fluency. She responded with verve, as if the determined downward swoop of her eye could signal an exclamation point.

Communicating with one eye may not seem like much, but it was something to behold. Maggie, as she was known, had suffered a complex stroke six years earlier, during her senior year at Smith College, that involved areas deep in her brain. She had been thought to be in the “vegetative state” — the term commonly used to define the unconscious brain state most of us associate with the right to die movement and the legacies of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo.

Later, Maggie was found to be in the “minimally conscious state” — a term medically formalized in 2002. Unlike vegetative patients, those in MCS are conscious. They demonstrate intention, attention and memory. They may reach for a cup, say their name and notice you when you walk into their room. The problem is that these actions may be rare and intermittent, so when family members who witnessed them share their observations with staff members, they are often attributed to a family’s wishful thinking.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.