Sam Schmid‘s is a college student who returned from a “brain-dead” coma.
Cases including that of Steven Thorpe, a teen who “came back” after being declared brain dead by four medical experts, as well as Terri Schiavo and Karen Quinlan who were both pulled off life support (and in Terri Schiavo’s situation, that life support consisted of nutritional support) are hotly debated.
Now, five neurologists have declared that young Jahi McMath, who went into a coma during a tonsillectomy, is not brain-dead, and indeed, has been responding to voice commands to move her hands and feet. Yet, a court-appointed neurologist says Jahi is brain dead.
Part of the problem is being sure that the description “brain-dead” is accurate. In Jahi McMath’s case, some doctors say that the original diagnosis was simply incorrect. (Others say Jahi is in fact, dead.)
But if the declaration of death is incorrect in even one out of one hundred cases, that still means that a patient is literally being murdered if taken off supportive medical systems. This is certainly a thorny ethical and moral problem for philosophers, scientists, and most of all doctors, but also an incredibly powerful issue for family members.
Recently, “Scientists in Cambridge have found hidden signatures in the brains of people in a vegetative state, which point to networks that could support consciousness even when a patient appears to be unconscious and unresponsive. The study could help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate.” (See article at ScienceDaily.com).
Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, where the study originated, says that “…for patients diagnosed as vegetative and minimally conscious, and their families, this is far more than just an academic question, it takes on a very real significance. Our research could improve clinical assessment and help identify patients who might be covertly aware despite being uncommunicative.”
As someone who believes absolutely in the value of a human life, some of the more disturbing thoughts others have shared with me include:
“If someone is brain-dead they are an “organism” and are no longer human.”
“Anyone who is suffering, whether brain dead or not, should be allowed to have an assisted death.”
Obviously, this is a real issue, with serious moral and ethical considerations.