What’s Wrong with the World

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Two stories with happy endings

Via Wesley J. Smith (and our editor, Paul Cella, who sent me the link independently) here is a neat story from the UK about a woman brought back to independent breathing by her husband's telling-off. Dominic Sullivan yelled at his wife to "stop mucking about" and to "come back." Two hours later she was found to be breathing on her own, after two weeks apparently in a coma. Pro-life nurse Nancy Valko has pointed out what is discussed in this article--that the sense of hearing is the last to go and can be operative even in people who appear to be unconscious. Yvonne Sullivan says that even though she can't remember what her husband was saying as he bawled her out, she could indeed hear him and believes that this gave her the will to fight.

Something to remember if (God forbid) someone you love should ever be in the same situation.

The other story I hesitate to link to, because the wording in the LifeSite news story is very confusing. While WJS is pleased that they made it better than it was originally, I didn't get to compare the original version to this one, and this version of the story still gives the strong impression that the phrase "brain dead" is properly used for what is called a "persistent vegetative state" and that "brain death" is compatible with independent breathing and other brain stem activities, when in fact this is not the case. "Brain death"--a term that has important legal ramifications for the harvesting of organs--refers to the cessation of function of the brain stem as well as the upper parts of the brain. Specifically, people said to be PVS can often breathe on their own, whereas people who are brain dead cannot, and legal brain death should absolutely not be concluded when the patient is breathing independently.

Be that as it may, the story ends well. A woman was sent home to die. Her daughter put an ice cube in her mouth to moisten her mouth (let's hear it for small acts of mercy), and found that her mother was sucking on it. She leaned down and said, "Mom, are you in there?" and was shocked when her mother mouthed "yes." Says the patient, Mrs. Kuperschmidt, "I know God's not done with me yet."

Comments (7)

Yoiks. That is a sloppy conflation of brain death and PVS. Some of it is just plain wrong. PVS itself is a shaky determination only a month out from a potentially reversible event.

Good news none-the-less.


I wonder how much a doctor would charge for yelling "stop mucking about" or would a government insured health plan cover it?

On the gruesome side; have any other patients ever heard their fate being discussed, of a certain final nature, and been unable to respond in any way. An unhappy thought but one that intrudes.

I've heard such stories but don't have time to look them up. Nancy Valko, whom I name in the main post, tells one story of a patient who later said something like, "I remember hearing that doctor say I was a vegetable. I never want to see him again."

A couple of years ago a woman and her husband were on several radio shows. She had had a brain stem stroke that left her paralyzed but, unbeknownst to everybody, completely conscious. The doctors began dehydrating her against her husband's wishes (I don't know the legal background of that one) until after several days during which she suffered terribly (as she vividly recalls), her husband figured out that she could do a code of some sort--some little finger wiggle or something, I forget what exactly, and convinced the doctor, and she was saved.

On the gruesome side; have any other patients ever heard their fate being discussed, of a certain final nature, and been unable to respond in any way.

Well, there's been quite a few cases (like these) where the patient wakes up, and it turns out they had been able to hear, despite having been given up for dead by the doctors and everyone else. Given this, I'd imagine there's probably a good deal more cases where the patient was able to hear, but didn't wake up, and so was killed without anybody ever knowing about it.

And given that, I'd say it's a near certainty that there have been patients who have heard their fates being discussed, but couldn't do anything about it.

Actually, I recall that there is at least one known case of someone who woke up in the middle of being starved to death, and described the agony afterwards.

But, no matter, all's well that ends well, and for all those folks who could hear people talking or feel pain but didn't wake up, it's just like it never happened, right?

It's like they say, if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody with a life worth living is there to hear it, then it doesn't make a sound. And even if it did, that's a small price to pay to make sure that nobody anywhere is unjustly kept alive when they'd be better off dead, right?

These might be instructive. Carrie Coons' story is particularly poignant. When asked later what she would have wanted to have done, she replied, "that's a very difficult decision to make."

Rosenberg, GA, Johnson, SF, Brenner, RP. Recovery of cognition after prolonged vegetative state. Ann. Neurol. 1977; 2:167-168.
Steinbock B. Recovery from persistent vegetative state? The case of Carrie Coons. Hastings Cent Rep 1989; 19:14-15.
Giacino JT. Disorders of consciousness: Differential diagnosis and neuropathological features. Seminars in Neurology 1997;2:105-111.
Cohen-Almagor R. Some observations on post-coma unawareness patients and on other forms of unconscious patients: policy proposals. Med Law 1997;16:451-47.
Childs NL, Mercer WN, Childs HW. Accuracy of diagnosis of persistent vegetative state. Neurology 1993; 43:1465-1467.
Andrews K, Murphy L, Munday R, Littlewood C. Misdiagnosis of the vegetative state: retrospective study in a rehabilitation unit. Brit Med J 1996;313:13-16.


Thanks, George. The whole "what the person would have wanted" thing is so artificial. A legal fiction in one of the worst of senses. If you asked me to answer such a question, in many cases I would have to say that the background was insufficiently well-defined. For example, are we asking what the _healthy_ person would want done to his _sick_ self, or what the _sick_ person would want if he were conscious? That's just for starters.

I have a close friend who has lapsed into a liberal coma (having been disenchanted with conservatives over the war in Iraq). I've been yelling at him for two years straight, but he hasn't snapped out of it yet.

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