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A patient, supposedly in a PVS, “not just aware, but paying attention,” study finds

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A considerable number of stories have been written on this topic, with a common thread being that patients diagnosed in a “persistent vegetative state” or “minimally conscious” are either (a) misdiagnosed or (b) much more aware than they are given credit for. Terri Schindler Schiavo captured the public’s attention and imagination, but she was not the only person to die of starvation and dehydration based on a false diagnosis of PVS.

Acknowledgement is given to bioethicist Wesley J. Smith, who drew attention to an intriguing study published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical. The study’s headline is likely to capture the interest of readers:

“Patient in ‘vegetative state’ not just aware, but paying attention; Research raises possibility of devices in the future to help some patients in a vegetative state interact with the outside world.”

In a word, the study is remarkable. Let us examine it in greater detail.

The research was conducted by scientists at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge. A total of 21 patients diagnosed with a persistent vegetative state (PVS) or minimally conscious state (MCS) were examined, with eight healthy individuals serving as a control group. To track what was taking place in the brain, researchers employed electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive method for measuring electrical activity over the scalp.

Without delving into the specifics of the methodology, the researchers sought to identify what they termed “attentive awareness.” This entailed the capacity to filter out superfluous information and concentrate on the specific words that were the subject of the attention being sought.

A patient who had been diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, unable to move or speak, demonstrated signs of attentive awareness that had not been previously identified in a new study. The patient was able to focus on words signalled by the experimenters as auditory targets as successfully as healthy individuals.

However, there is more to be revealed. Furthermore, the scientists employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to ascertain that the patient could follow simple commands to imagine playing tennis.

In the study’s explanation, Dr Tristan Bekinschtein of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit provided insights that extend beyond the scope of my knowledge. However, the most significant finding is that these results indicate the potential for enhancing communication abilities in individuals with severe brain injuries, including vegetative states.

In a recent communication, Wesley posited that if this is indeed the case with other patients, the prospect of hearing one’s family members discussing the removal of one’s food and water must be particularly distressing. One can only imagine the pain of the actual event. He subsequently elucidates that we are indeed aware of the excruciating agony that patients endure. He cites the case of Kate Adamson, who underwent abdominal surgery with inadequate anaesthesia because she was mistakenly thought to be unconscious after a brain stem stroke. However, being unfed (although hydrated) was found to be more painful than the sensation of being cut open.

Wesley concludes his column by citing a 2003 article, “A Painless Death,” in which he discusses the issue of dehydration and its effects on the human body.

In preparation for this article, I contacted Adamson for further details about the torture she experienced while being dehydrated. She informed me that she had undergone an operation (to remove the bowel obstruction) without adequate anaesthesia, despite the belief of the medical team that she was unconscious.

The agony of going without food was a constant and prolonged pain that lasted not several hours like the operation did, but several days. In addition to the physical discomfort, patients must also endure the emotional distress associated with the experience. The body’s natural response is to cry out for nourishment. I am alive and a person, and I implore you not to let me die. “Somebody feed me.”

It is noteworthy that she described being deprived of food and water as a more severe experience than undergoing abdominal surgery. Despite being on an intravenous saline solution, Adamson still experienced intense thirst:

“I craved any form of liquid intake.” Anything would have sufficed. I was consumed by the image of drinking from a vast bottle of orange Gatorade. Furthermore, I am not particularly fond of orange Gatorade. Despite the administration of lemon-flavored mouth swabs to alleviate dryness, the patient’s intense thirst remained unabated.

In conclusion, Wesley states:

In conclusion, it is evident that the most significant takeaway from this experience is the necessity for further research into the potential benefits of oral rehydration therapy. Many will argue that these patients are suffering as a result of being aware of their condition, which justifies doctors to lethally inject, anaesthetise and dehydrate, or kill by harvesting their organs. Indeed, some bioethicists have already made such arguments.

“P.S. In the event that a loved one is believed to be unconscious, it is advisable to assume that they can still hear you.” It is a common occurrence for individuals who are believed to be unconscious to recall events that occurred in their absence.


Daniel Miller is responsible for nearly all of National Right to Life News' political writing.

With the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, Daniel Miller developed a deep obsession with U.S. politics that has never let go of the political scientist. Whether it's the election of Joe Biden, the midterm elections in Congress, the abortion rights debate in the Supreme Court or the mudslinging in the primaries - Daniel Miller is happy to stay up late for you.

Daniel was born and raised in New York. After living in China, working for a news agency and another stint at a major news network, he now lives in Arizona with his two daughters.

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