DISORDERS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
AND THE PERMANENT VEGETATIVE
Theresa Marie Schiavo was twenty-six years old when she suffered a cardiac arrest for reasons still unknown. Terri grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the oldest of three children. She married her first boyfriend, Michael Schiavo, whom she met in college, and they moved to Florida in 1986. Her family followed them there. Terri worked as a clerk for an insurance company while Michael worked in restaurant management. One early morning in February 1990, Michael awoke, found Terri collapsed in the hallway of their apartment, and called 911. Twelve minutes later, at 5:52, paramedics begin resuscitation efforts and, after several attempts at defibrillation, restored her heartbeat. By this time, her brain had sustained severe injury due to lack of oxygen. She was taken to a local hospital. She never again regained consciousness.
Initially, Terri entered a coma. During this time, she would have looked like she was asleep. A coma resembles sleep because the patient's eyes are closed, but the patient is unresponsive and cannot be roused. A coma is typically a temporary condition; patients who initially enter a coma will either die without ever recovering consciousness, will recover either complete or partial consciousness, or will enter a vegetative state. This, after about a month, was how Terri's coma ended—in a vegetative state.
Drs. Bryan Jennett and Fred Plum adopted the term “persistent vegetative state” in 1972 to describe patients who had, after trauma to the brain, entered a condition of unconsciousness that is marked by periods of apparent wakefulness,1 where a cycle of “eyes-open, 'wakeful' appearance alternates with an eyes-closed 'sleep' state.”2