During my family's battle to save my sister Terri Schiavo from death by dehydration, a tremendous amount of debate raged over whether or not she was in what the medical profession refers to as a persistent vegetative state (PVS).
Indeed, the PVS diagnosis was used as one of the deciding factors in whether my sister should live or die. It was the core catalyst in the court ordering the removal of Terri's food and water.
When Terri's husband first petitioned the circuit courts to remove her sustenance, my family was naive about PVS and what the diagnosis actually meant, and could not believe a court would ever order her food and water withdrawn. As the battle over my sister's life progressed, however, we learned - the hard way.
The more anecdotal testimony we heard about the diagnosis of PVS, the more my family was convinced that Terri simply didn't fit the profile and was never PVS. We also suspected such a diagnosis (typically made at the bedside) was seriously flawed.
This became very obvious by the way Terri interacted with my mother, not to mention the videos which clearly showed that Terri was able to track objects and follow simple commands.
I was oftentimes rather astonished at the number of different and opposing conclusions I heard from neurologists, physicians, speech therapists and so many other medical professionals who tried to determine whether or not Terri was in a PVS.
This is why a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, regarding findings of awareness in patients previously diagnosed in a PVS, may be one of the most important to date.
The Journal's report, released on Feb. 3, revealed that some patients who were believed to be in a PVS were actually able to understand and communicate. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance scanning (fMRI), researchers in the United Kingdom estimated that a percentage of those patients suffering from profound brain injuries possessed the capacity to comprehend and communicate in limited ways.
Though the results of this study may bring new hope to patients with severe brain injuries, the latest findings also suggest that the PVS diagnosis may be more flawed than previously believed. Already, documented research has brought into question the veracity of the PVS diagnosis. The New England Journal of Medicine's February report may be something of a call to action.
Indeed, it is bittersweet for my family when we read such findings that question the PVS diagnosis. It exonerated me courageous individuals who placed their careers and reputations on the line to voice opposition to my sister's court-ordered dehydration. …