A new report raises important questions about whether or not some people diagnosed as irrevocably unconscious really are. The study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) finds that some patients previously diagnosed to be in a vegetative state were mentally aware and able to communicate. Researchers found that when such patients were placed in an functional MRI (fMRI) scanner and asked questions, they exhibited measurable brain activity showing actual understanding and response.
My first encounter with informed medical consent came as a young law student. I was assigned to assist a lawyer in the defense of an older man who had refused treatment for leukemia. His daughter objected, and asked the court to appoint her to be his conservator so she could compel him to undergo treatment. When the father spoke to my supervisor, his position became clear. His atypical choice was informed by his cultural background and personal character. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, he was adamantly against yielding control of his life to his daughter. He had tried the medicines, and found they sapped his strength and made him weak. He would rather go on strong for as long as possible and remain his own master.