When a Vegetative-State Patient Returns to Tell the Tale

Studying Brain

(Psychology Today) – On July 19, 2013, John spent the evening with friends, returning home around midnight. He made himself a snack, said goodnight to his parents, and turned in. Everything seemed normal. But at 6:30 a.m. the following morning, things were far from normal.

Margaret awoke to the sound of her 19-year-old son choking to death in his bedroom, just a few yards away. She rushed into his room and found him unresponsive, lying face down in his own vomit.

John was rushed to his local emergency room. A CT scan showed extensive damage to the white matter in his brain, including the frontal and parietal lobes, regions critical for working memory, attention and other high-level cognitive functions.

This kind of brain damage, widespread and diffuse with no clear borders between healthy and damaged tissue, is common when the brain has been starved of oxygen. When the oxygen dries up, the brain starts shutting down little by little, piece by piece, until there isn’t even enough functional tissue left to keep our most primitive bodily functions, like breathing, going. John wasn’t quite there, but he was close.

On admission, he had a Glasgow Coma Score of three out of a possible fifteen. You can’t score lower than a three, not without being dead. CONTINUE