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One-in-five ‘vegetative’ patients is misdiagnosed: Study

Around 20 percent of hospital patients condemned as 'brain-dead' may be conscious and recover, a study has found.
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Drew Belsky By Drew Belsky

Drew Belsky By Drew Belsky

May 29, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Around 20 percent of hospital patients condemned as "brain-dead" are misdiagnosed – that is, those patients could be conscious and likely to recover. In fact, they may be as likely to respond to questions as healthy patients – they just lack the ability to communicate with the outside world.

Neurosurgeon Adrian Owen of the University of Western Ontario and his colleagues performed brain scans on hospital patients diagnosed as being in what some call a "persistent vegetative state" – i.e., completely unresponsive and lacking brain activity. They asked the patients questions, and a brain scan showed that "a significant proportion" of the patients, despite showing no external response, answered the questions mentally.

"We've seen a lot of patients, all of them diagnosed as being in the vegetative state," Owen reported in his neurological study in 2006. "And about one in five of them [is] entirely unresponsive at the bedside but will reliably produce these [brain] activity patterns in the scanner."

Owen, joined by neuroscientist Lorina Naci, followed up his work with a second study in 2014 that found that non-responsive patients' reactions to stimuli were "nearly identical" to those of healthy control subjects.

These findings have profound implications for the "death with dignity" or pro-euthanasia movement, whose adherents support the right to have doctors kill non-responsive people .

There is a problem of definitions in the euthanasia debate, which is heated and controversial. Doctors and others squabble over what constitutes consciousness, and thus when non-responsive patients can be deprived of life-preserving care.

"The problem for people working on consciousness is that none of us can agree on what it actually means," Owen has said.

Similarly, doctors draw distinctions among states of non-responsiveness. A patient who is "minimally conscious" is more responsive than one "in a vegetative state," who is in turn more likely to recover than a patient in a coma. While "vegetative" patients are "awake but not aware," comatose patients are neither awake nor aware.

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What Owen's work shows is that one in five patients diagnosed as "vegetative" is in fact "minimally conscious." These patients are at significant risk of being killed by hospitals.

Alex Schadenberg, executive director of the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, warned that these findings have to be put in their proper context.

While the Owen studies represent "facts that have been coming out for a while," they are restricted by the technology of our time.

"We're making these judgments that 20 percent are not in a vegetative state using current technology," Schadenberg told LifeSiteNews, "but our technology has improved significantly over the last few years. It is possible that we can find new remedies and treatments to help the recovery of patients with brain injuries.

Schadenberg mentioned Terri Schiavo, who was dehydrated t death in Florida in 2005. "If the medical establishment will consider PVS ['persistent vegetative state'] a condition that allows for us to intentionally deprive someone of fluids, if that person is not actually in a PVS, it should create great concerns."

Schiavo is not the only contentious case of a person declared unfit to keep alive by doctors, with the family fighting among themselves and with the hospital to keep their loved one alive. Another example is 13-year-old Jahi McMath, who went into a coma after complications from a tonsillectomy in December 2013. McMath's family had to fight Oakland Children's Hospital, whose staff insisted on removing McMath from her ventilator.

The girl, championed by multiple physicians and the Terri Schiavo Network, was eventually transferred and allowed to live. Her family sued Oakland Children's Hospital this March.

Regardless of what new technology may emerge, Schadenberg considers the debate over "consciousness" a red herring. What it comes down to, he said, is that "we're discriminating against people with disabilities. We are taking away their humanity based on a concept that is not at all valid or clear. Our humanity is based on whether we are human.”

“Personhood should be based on humanity, not whether one has a cognitive ability or not,” he said.

Euthanasia is legal in several countries, including Switzerland and the Netherlands. The Canadian Supreme Court overturned a ban on assisted suicide earlier this year, with the Canadian Parliament now responsible for legislating the practice. Belgium, already a pioneer in assisted suicide, passed a law in 2014 to extend the practice to children.


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