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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 6th May 2016 > BACK FROM THE BRAIN-DEAD

BACK FROM THE BRAIN-DEAD

For years, we may have over-diagnosed patients as vegetative and underestimated their ability to regain consciousness

@swartzgirl

COMA UPENDED: Given the right stimuli, brain activity in patients in persistent vegetative states can bear similarity to non-injured people.
MAX ROSSI/REUTERS

MAGGIE WORTHEN was a week away from graduating from Smith College in May 2006 when she suffered a massive stroke. Her classmates found her unconscious on the floor of her dorm room, unable to speak or move.

A CT scan revealed that the stroke in the otherwise healthy 22-year-old was brought on by a blood clot in the basilar artery, a critical blood vessel in the back of her head that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the brainstem, the part of the brain that controls the body’s basic life support system. It took 12 hours before neurosurgeons at the closest trauma center were able to remove the clot and restore blood flow to Maggie’s brain. She was in a deep coma, kept alive by the ventilator that told her lungs to breathe because her brain could not.

“They told me most people don’t survive these kinds of strokes. If she made it through the next couple days, it was almost certain she would have no meaningful recovery,” says Maggie’s mother, Nancy Worthen. As Nancy grappled with Maggie’s prognosis, she felt pressured to make some harrowing choices. One doctor advised removing Maggie from the ventilator and letting her die. Another suggested foregoing the insertion of a feeding tube and tracheotomy that would help Maggie breathe. A representative from an organ procurement organization approached her for consent to transplant Maggie’s organs. But Nancy resisted them all, believing in the resilience that had always defined her daughter.

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