The Chinese Patients Stuck in a Consciousness ‘Gray Zone’

Studying Brain

(Sixth Tone) — Sitting in his daughter’s ward, Zhang Shaofeng takes out a wrinkled piece of paper and painstakingly writes down all the dates last year when he had to transfer her between hospitals. The final count: 15 times. He smiles bitterly. He’s gotten used to it.

The girl, 5-year-old Niuniu — a nickname — is in a vegetative state, unaware of herself or her surroundings. She is one of China’s youngest patients with a disorder of consciousness (DOC), an umbrella term for conditions in which people have trouble staying awake or conscious due to severe brain injury. Neuroscientists describe them as floating in “the gray zone of consciousness.”

Experts estimate there are 200,000 to 300,000 DOC patients in China and say this number is increasing because health care improvements mean more and more people survive serious accidents, strokes, or heart attacks. Nevertheless, China’s health care system is badly equipped to deal with them. CONTINUE