Woman who had suffered catastrophic brain injury communicates with her mom after 21 years

By Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director – Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Joellen Huntley is shown in a pair of family handout photos.
Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS

On December 29 the Canadian Press published a “Christmas miracle” story. A Nova Scotia woman, Joellen Huntley, who had suffered a catastrophic brain injury in 1996, communicated with her mother, on Christmas day, for the first time in 21 years.

Her mother called it a “Christmas miracle” which occurred during a visit to the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville, Nova Scotia.

According to Keith Doucette

Louise Misner said her 37-year-old daughter Joellen Huntley used eye-motion cameras and software on an iPad to respond to a comment from Misner about her clothes.

Huntley has been severely disabled since she was 15, unable to walk or talk and fed through a tube. She has always responded to family members’ presence by making sounds, but was unable to communicate any thoughts.

Huntley was thrown from a car that had swerved to avoid a dog that was running loose along a road in Centreville, N.S., on April 18, 1996. The accident claimed the life of her boyfriend and a young girl who was the sister of the driver.

The article reports that the breakthrough happened in this way:

“I said ‘Joellen I like your new Christmas outfit you got on,'” Misner said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Misner said her daughter then used the technology to find an icon for a short-sleeve shirt.

“And then she said no, and went to a long-sleeve shirt because she was trying to tell me what she had on.”

Misner said her reaction was immediate to what had been a long hoped for personal communication.

The computer equipment was purchased for Joellen with the proceeds from a court settlement. According to the story

Misner said the settlement money helped the family purchase the computer equipment she is now using with the help of a speech pathologist.

“We had to go through two or three different screens until we found the right one for her and it’s called Eyegaze. Her eyes focus on the icons to answer questions.”

In the past few years Dr. Adrian Owen, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario, has developed technology to communicate with people who are believed to be in a Persistent Vegetative State.

The computer technology used by Joellen is different than the technology used by Dr. Owen but this article shows how technology is opening the window for people who were considered by many to be “hopeless.” Doucette added

Misner said one of Joellen’s nurses told them she is “doing really well with it.”

“I knew she just needed time for technology to catch up with her,” Misner said. “When God gives you a child, they are the most precious thing and you never give up on them and you always fight for them.”

The “Christmas miracle” teaches us that we should never consider a human being with disabilities as less than an equal person. It also teaches us that every human life has value.

Unfortunately, many people believe that euthanasia should be considered for people in Joellen’s condition.