Earlier this week, the BBC reported on the story of Scott Routley, a Canadian man whom doctors have believed to be in a vegetative state for more than a decade. The report revealed that due to breakthroughs in the field of brain imaging, Scott has been, remarkably, able to communicate with his doctors and convey to them that he is not in any pain.
Routley, a 39-year-old man from London, Ontario, severely injured his brain in a car accident 12 years ago. Since the accident, he has been in what is described as a vegetative state. Patients who are vegetative are in a coma-like state and exhibit no awareness. Though they lack apparent cognitive function, they still experience sleep-wake cycles and open their eyes occasionally. For 12 years it has been presumed that Scott has had no perception of himself or anything around him.
However, scientists at the Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario have found that this is not the case. For the first time in medical history, a severely brain damaged and uncommunicative patient has been able to provide information relevant to his care. Due to breakthrough work on brain activity, doctors have been able to “see” Scott’s responses to their questions by using a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine and observing which sections of his brain light up. Using this method, Scott has been able to respond to questions, including whether or not he is in pain.
Dr. Adrian Owen, the neuroscientist who led the research team that made this breakthrough, remarked, “Scott has been able to show he has a conscious, thinking mind. We have scanned him several times and his pattern of brain activity shows he is clearly choosing to answer our questions. We believe he knows who and where he is.”
According to Canada’s The Star Newspaper, “Owen said there is no doubt that being able to communicate in this way with a person thought to be a vegetative state [sic] is a first and it is hoped will lead to routine communications with at least one in five people in this uncommunicative state.”
This breakthrough comes as a miracle for Scott’s family, who have long contended, despite his doctor’s doubts, that Scott was aware. However, it also raises serious questions about how patients in similar conditions are treated. There are those who hold that so called “mercy killings” are the best way to deal with patients such as Scott as it is presumed that they are unaware and can have no quality of life. Perhaps the most famous example of this idea being enforced was the case of Terri Schindler Schiavo who died in 2005 following 13 days without hydration or nutrition at the order of a Florida Circuit Court Judge. The effort to end Terri Schiavo’s life was propelled by the notion that she was in a persistent vegetative state.
This new advance in doctors’ ability to communicate with patients is a sign of hope for patients and their families. This may provide people previously cut off from the world with a chance to engage on some level with those around them. Additionally, perhaps this advance will encourage others to see the value in the lives of the severely disabled as their humanity shines through despite tremendous obstacles.