Thursday, March 24, 2005

If They Do Stay the Execution, We May Learn About the Ordeal From Terri

If Terri Schiavo is rehydrated and fed, guardianship revoked from her "husband" Michael, and her treatment and rehabilitation begun immediately, realize that we may yet have a chance - perhaps unprecedented in modern history - to put to the test a variety of claims and counterclaims about the disabled, dying and the physical experience of dehydration-induced toxicity. Specifically:

  1. We may learn from Terri what it was like to have been dehydrated. We don't know precisely what her mental disabilities are but doctors interpreting the CT scans have reason to believe part of her problem is hydrocephalus. Terri can communicate even now, her cortex is not eviscerated or liqufied like some have asserted, and with the hydrocephalus issue resolved some of her cognitive abilities may improve. There are competing theories as to how it feels to "suffer" imminent death in this manner. Maybe we'll find out and put the debate to rest once and for all. The real-life victim Kate Adamson (who suffered for 9 days in a state of total awareness) and the theorists at the LA Times (who consider those close to death already) have vastly different opinions on the experience. Either way the knowledge will accrue to our moral standing.

  2. We will learn the extent to which a patient's cognitive and functional abilities can return after a period of a decade or more of zero treatment.

  3. We will verify / falsify claims that extend beyond medicine into bioethics, politics and civil rights. Some of the different positions we all take on these issues depend on unproven assumptions; that has created a moral deadlock where each side can argue they're right because there's no way to prove anything. Recussitating Terri Schiavo may give us some of the answers to these questions. Either way, the answers may surprise us.

No matter which way the decision goes there will be winners and losers. Either way those who perpetrated fraud and malpractice on Terri have an angry public willing to go after them. Those guilty of medical fraud will be incriminated with or without their consent. But if we manage to save Terri's life in the process, and discover just how far she can be rehabilitated, we may get a huge payback.

As to who's right - Kate or the LA Times: Can they possibly both be right? Do victims experience a period of excruciating pain and misery mitigated only by the dire final stages of the process, where agony is replaced by the euphoria of near-death? Or is progression toward death more peaceful? We may know more because of Terri Schiavo.

We already know that Terri can say the word "pai[n]". Presumably she'll know when she feels it.


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