Oops, we're seeing signs of consciousness

That's what Haleigh Poutre's doctors said after being ordered to re-examine her. They had previously insisted she was virtually brain dead and in a state of permanent vegetation, according to Department of Social Services Commissioner Harry Spence (source: Associated Press). In fact, the article explains that Haleigh was showing "signs of responsiveness", she was getting better, a week before the Supreme Judicial Court of her state granted permission to remove her feeding tube and respirator. At that time, "Haleigh's doctors said her movements were not a sign she would recover."

Haleigh was hospitalized on Sept. 11, 2005, with a damaged brain stem that authorities say resulted from blows inflicted by her adoptive mother and stepfather, who were charged with assault (with a baseball bat). Just eight days later the DSS decided her case was hopeless and sought to end medical treatment.

One of the more provoking aspects of this horrendous ordeal, brought out by the AP's article, is that the DSS, and those who had contact with Haleigh, could tell she was responsive and improving. However, they said nothing because the medical experts insisted treatment was pointless:

"When there was evidence there were signs of improvement, we insisted the doctors re-examine Haleigh and come back to us," Spence said Thursday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "They absolutely affirmed that the chances of her recovery were absolutely zero. There was nothing for us to report to the SJC. There was nothing that had changed."
Is it possible for several medical experts to misdiagnose PVS? In one study, 43% of individuals thought by doctors to be PVS were later found to be alert, aware, and often able to express a simple wish. The study was conducted over years but in Haleigh's case, doctors took just eight days.

The DSS has been rightly criticized for their failure to protect Haleigh despite 16 reports of abuse and neglect. The statements by Spence clearly lay the blame for events after Haleigh's hospitalization on the doctors who examined her. Yet, his rebuke is off the mark. While pointing out mistakes, there remains no acknowledgement of a fundamental problem related to the diagnosis of PVS and its subsequent use to terminate a patient.

After eight days, the state, together with its medical consults, attempted to passively euthanize a young girl even though it was clear she was improving (at least to non-experts). This makes me wonder, even speculate, what if improvement was obvious but the doctors simply decided her life wasn't worth living. Does this sound familiar?

Another question, was it the visit (and witness) of Haleigh's biological mother that made the DSS and her doctor's realize that obvious signs of consciousness had better not be ignored? (we previously reported: "The week before the SJC ruled on Jan. 17 that life support could be removed, DSS ordered a new round of tests on Haleigh after her biological mother visited and described the girl as being responsive.")

A final question, why does the press continue to add injury to insult by reporting this as a "right-to-die" case?




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