'Doctor, Don't Give Up on Me!'

Leigh Page

Disclosures

March 16, 2016

In This Article

When Patients Come Back From the Dead

All of the legal advantages for patients that Pope brings up, however, may be unknown to surrogates who oppose the withdrawal of care. Left with little time to take action and worried about the patient's survival, some relatives take the law into their own hands. This is what George Pickering did in a Texas hospital in January 2015.

According to the Washington Post,[22] Pickering's young son was on life support after having a stroke. Hospital staff declared him brain dead and ordered a "terminal wean," which would have slowly removed him from life support, and an organ donation organization was waiting in the wings. But Pickering was convinced that his son was not brain dead, so he pulled out his 9-mm handgun and holed up in his son's hospital room.

During a standoff with law enforcement officers that lasted for hours, Pickering felt his son squeeze his hand several times on command, which confirmed that he was not brain dead. Pickering then surrendered. He was convicted on two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and served 8 months in jail, but by the time he got out, his son had fully recovered. "There was a law broken, but it was broken for all the right reasons," his son told the media. "I'm here now because of it."

The younger Pickering is not the only patient who has recovered from a persistent vegetative state, according to Joseph J. Fins, MD, a medical ethicist at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of the new book, Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics, and the Struggle for Consciousness.

Dr Fins says that these patients have a new diagnosis called minimal consciousness, and he estimates there are 100,000-200,000 patients in a minimally conscious state warehoused in nursing homes and other facilities, and often they're not getting the rehabilitation they need. He points to a 2012 study[23] finding that 21% of patients with prolonged disorders of consciousness undergoing inpatient rehabilitation were capable of living independently if they get the right therapy.

One patient who recovered from minimal consciousness is Bob Woodruff, the ABC news anchor who sustained a traumatic brain injury while covering the war in Iraq. In a book he coauthored with his wife, Woodruff recalled that his caregivers initially wanted to put him in a nursing home because he wasn't meeting the improvement standard for rehabilitation. But when he started to stir and spoke to his wife, they changed their minds.

"We owe these patients the chance to recuperate," Dr Fins says. Right now, they don't even receive the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act because society still doesn't see them as human beings worthy of protection. "That needs to change."

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