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Think People in a “Vegetative State” Are “Brain Dead”?

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Gene Tarne - published on 10/13/14

Locked-in” syndrome is a very rare and little know condition (although the movie The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has somewhat increased awareness of it) with symptoms strikingly similar to those displayed by the accident victim in “Breakdown:” the patient retains full awareness of his environment, yet remains paralyzed and unable to communicate with those around him. While locked-in syndrome affects only 1% of those who suffer a stroke, 90% who are so affected die within four months.

Not so Richard Marsh. After a stroke in 2009, Marsh succumbed to locked-in syndrome. Just over four months later, to the amazement of his family and doctors, he walked out of the long-term facility where he had been treated.   

Describing his experience, Marsh said “I had full cognitive and physical awareness … but an almost complete paralysis of nearly all the voluntary muscles in my body." He also recalls being able to “think and hear and listen to people but couldn’t speak or move. The doctors would just stand at the foot of the bed and just talk like I wasn’t in the room.” In a manner uncannily similar to the fictional accident victim in “Breakdown,” Marsh says “I just wanted to holler: ‘Hey people, I’m still here!’ But there was no way to let anyone know."

Several of the conversations Marsh recalls were between doctors and his wife about turning off the breathing machine that was keeping him alive. The doctors argued that Marsh had little chance of surviving, and even if he did, he would be “a vegetable.”

"I could hear the conversation and in my mind I was screaming ‘No!’" Marsh recounted.

Another case – one that has been highlighted on this website – is that of Miguel Parrondo, who awoke 15 years after falling into a coma as a result of a car accident. As in Marsh’s case, the doctors treating Parrondo recommended turning off his life support, but also like Marsh, his family resisted.

In an address to the participants in the International Congress on Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas,” St. John Paul II said:

The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed. He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery. . . .

I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory…”

Unfortunately, as the cases of Richard Marsh and Miguel Parrondo show, doctors and other health care providers today are all too quick to suggest “treating” patients in an unresponsive state by “pulling the plug.”

And if we are obligated to care for patients in a prolonged vegetative state, even when they are considered to be completely unaware of their surroundings and incapable of interacting with it, how much more incumbent is that obligation knowing, thanks to the research of Owen and others, that these patients may be far more conscious of their surroundings and able to communicate with us then we now know. And as Pope St. John Paul II reminds us in the same Address:

Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a "vegetative state" retain their human dignity in all its fullness. The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help.

Gene Tarne
is a senior analyst with the Charlotte Lozier Institute ( He has been involved with the life issues for over 20 years.

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EuthanasiaPope John Paul II
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