Medical Experts Now Agree that Severely Brain-injured Patients are Often Misdiagnosed and May Recover

People with severe brain injuries from accidents, strokes, illness, etc. are often in comas at first. If they don’t die or spontaneously wake up, they can progress to a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) described as “awake but unaware” and/or a “minimally conscious state” (MCS) described as definite, but extremely limited, awareness of self or environment, and limited means of communication. People with these conditions have had court battles over removing their feeding tubes such as the 1988 Nancy Cruzan (PVS) and the 2001 Robert Wendland (MCS) right to die” cases.

Now, an August 9, 2018 Medscape article “New Guideline for Minimally Conscious, Vegetative States Released”  reveals that 3 specialty societies including the American Academy of Neurology have just published a new guideline with 15 recommendations for “accurate diagnosis, prognosis and treatment for these conditions”.

The reason for the new guidelines, according to Dr. Joseph Giacino, who was one of the authors of the study, is because:

“Misdiagnosis of  DoC (“disorders of consciousness”) is common because underlying impairments can mask awareness — in fact, there is a 40% rate of misdiagnosis, leading to inappropriate care decisions as well as poor health outcomes.” (Emphasis added)

The 223 page new guideline titled Practice guideline update: Disorders of consciousness” states that:

 “Clinicians should refer patients with DoC (disorders of consciousness) who have achieved medical stability to settings staffed by multidisciplinary rehabilitation teams with specialized training to optimize diagnostic evaluation, prognostication, and subsequent management, including effective medical monitoring and rehabilitative care.”

and

When discussing prognosis with caregivers of patients with DoC (disorders of consciousness) during the first 28 days after injury, avoid statements suggesting that these patents “have a universally poor prognosis”. (All emphasis added)

According to Dr. Giacino, “Approximately 20% of individuals who have disturbance in consciousness from trauma regain functional independence between 2 and 5 years post-injury, even though they may not return to work or pretrauma functioning.” (Emphasis added)

The study also cites the drug amantadine and brain imaging showing that the brain can still respond normally to stimulus even though the person seems unaware as potentially helpful.

What about the “right to die” for these people? Ominously, the guideline does mention 1 study found that hospital mortality was 31.7%, with 70.2% of those deaths associated with the withdrawal of life-sustaining therapy”. (Emphasis added)

IS THE “40% MISDIAGNOSIS” RATE REALLY NEWS?

Doctors like Dr. Keith Andrews of the UK and US doctor Mihai Dimancescu published  medical journal articles  in the 1990s showing that around 40% of patients in a so-called “persistent vegetative state” were misdiagnosed.  And in 1987, the Royal Hospital for Neuro-Disability in the UK opened a “vegetative state” unit and later developed the “Sensory Modality Assessment and Rehabilitation Technique (SMART)” as a clinical tool for the assessment and rehabilitation of people with disorders of consciousness following severe brain injury.

Despite this, most media stories about cases like Terri Schiavo’s and “right to die”/assisted suicide groups continued to insist that “PVS” is a hopeless condition for which everyone should sign a “living will” to ensure that food and water is withheld or withdrawn to “allow” death.

This happened despite articles like the New York Times’ 1982 article “Coming Out of Coma”.  about the unexpected return of consciousness of Sgt. David Mack over a year after the famous “right to die” neurologist Dr. Ron Cranford  predicted ”He will never be aware of his condition nor resume any degree of meaningful voluntary conscious interaction with his family or friends” before. (Emphasis added)

There have also been articles about people like Terry Wallis who in 2003 regained consciousness after 19 years in a “minimally conscious” state. Unfortunately, such cases were often explained away as just “misdiagnosis” or a “miracle”.

MY EXPERIENCE

Just before Drs. Jennet and Plum invented the term “persistent vegetative state” in 1972,  I started working with these many comatose patients as a young ICU nurse. Despite the skepticism of my colleagues, I talked to these patients as if they were awake because I believed it was worth doing it for the patient if hearing is truly the last sense to go. Because of this, I unexpectedly saw some amazing recoveries and one patient later  told me that he would only respond to me at first and refused to respond to the doctor because he was angry when heard the doctor call him a “vegetable” when the doctor assumed the patient was comatose.

Over the years, I’ve written about several other patients like “Jack”, “Katie” and “Chris” in comas or “persistent vegetative states” who regained full or limited consciousness with verbal and physical stimulation. I also recommended Jane Hoyt’s wonderful 1994 pamphlet “A Gentle Approach-Interacting with a Person who is Semi-Conscious  or Presumed in Coma” to help families and others stimulate healing of the brain. Personally, I have only seen one person who did not improve from the so-called “vegetative” state during the approximately two years I saw him.

CONCLUSION

It is good news that the American Academy of Neurology and other groups are finally rethinking their approach to people with severe brain injuries, especially the recommendation to start rehabilitation therapies as soon as the person is medically stable and the recommendation for  periodic and thorough testing over time.

This is crucial because the often quick prognosis of “hopeless” attached to people with severe brain injuries can-and has-led to early withdrawal of feeding tubes and ventilators as well as DCD (donation after cardiac/circulatory death) for these non-brain dead people.

Dr. Joseph Fins MD and chief of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College perhaps says it best when he praises the new guideline as “a real step forward for this population that has historically been marginalized and remains vulnerable” and “suggests that brain states are not static, but dynamic, and that people can improve over time”. (Emphasis added)

 

 

 

 

 

A Legacy for Jahi McMath

As a mother who has lost two beloved daughters, my heart goes out to Jahi McMath’s  mother Nailah Winkfield after the recent loss of her daughter after an almost 5 year battle to save her and have California rescind her death certificate after doctors concluded that Jahi was “brain dead”.

Jahi McMath was only 13 years old when she suffered complications after what was supposed to be a routine tonsillectomy and was declared “brain dead”. But instead of just accepting the diagnosis, her mother insisted that Jahi continue to be treated with a ventilator and have a feeding tube in the hope that she could improve.

The California hospital refused and a death certificate was issued for Jahi. The case made national news with influential ethicists like Arthur Caplan, PhD stating about Jahi that “You can’t really feed a corpse” and “She is going to start to decompose.” Other experts like Dr. Alan Shewmon disagreed.

Jahi’s mother went to court but a judge declared that Jahi met California’s criteria for brain death and that the hospital could remove Jahi’s  ventilator. However, the judge stayed the order for awhile so Jahi’s mother could appeal.

Instead and with the help of lawyers and The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network ,  Jahi’s mother was able to get her daughter transferred to New Jersey, a state that allows a religious exemption for determining death solely on the basis of the stopping of breathing and heartbeat instead of “brain death”.

After the transfer, Jahi’s  family released videos showing that not only did Jahi’s  body not deteriorate but also that Jahi seemed to be improving and moving her toes.

Sadly, Jahi unexpectedly died June 22, 2018 from excessive bleeding and liver failure after an operation for an intestinal problem. Jahi’s mother says she does not regret the years-long efforts to save her daughter and maintains that Jahi was able to communicate with me with her hands,” “Sometimes her feet, sometimes her head, but we spoke with her hands.”

A SURPRISING DEVELOPMENT

On April 11, 2018 and before Jahi died, the Harvard Medical School held a conference on “Brain Death and the Controversial Case of Jahi McMath”.

The results of this conference were released just days after Jahi’s  death and, according to The Mercury News, said that:

” Jahi McMath’s  brain showed subtle signs of improvement over the five-year span following the original declaration that she was brain-dead — suggesting a legal ‘resurrection’ from death to life and challenging our widely held understanding of what it means to be officially dead.” (Emphasis added)

And also that Jahi:

continued to grow, developed breasts, had menstrual cycles, digested food, excreted waste, fought off infections, healed wounds and seemed to respond to basic commands, according to medical testimony provided at a conference about the case.” (Emphasis added)

Dr. Robert Truog, the director of the Harvard Center for Bioethics who organized the conference, has long maintained that the legal definition of brain death as the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” was a  “legal fiction”.

But in a July 2, 2018 Mercury News article “Jahi McMath improved after she was declared brain-dead, doctors say”, Dr. Truog also said that “brain death” does not necessarily signify biological death but merely the extreme end of the spectrum of brain injury and that:

Even if (“brain dead”) patients are not biologically dead, their profound neurological impairment means that, for legal purposes, they can be treated as if they are dead.” (Emphasis added)

In the meantime, Jahi McMath now has two death certificates- one in California and one in New Jersey-and her family has a malpractice lawsuit against the original hospital.

CONCLUSION

Jahi McMath leaves behind many who mourn her but also the achievement of bringing public attention to the problems with the “brain death” diagnosis.

Unfortunately, as one new bioethicist wrote in a blog “Redefining Death in the Law” after attending the Harvard conference, with the legal concept of “brain death” undermined, death itself may be reduced to merely a personal choice:

“In the absence of a true biological or moral basis for the current conception of brain death, the law ought to reflect that death is largely a values judgement. Individuals should be allowed to state a preference during advanced care planning as to which definition of death most closely aligns with their personal beliefs. Religious accommodations are a step in this direction, but a more respectful and coherent law would give everyone a choice in defining their own death.” (Emphasis added)

Instead, I would submit that what we really should be doing is giving every brain-injured patient time, treatment and a chance to recover as fully as possible.

Now that would be a great legacy for Jahi McMath!

 

 

Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Brain Death

Most people who sign organ donor cards believe what organ donation campaigns tell us, such as:

“A person who has sustained a severe brain injury, such as from an accident, stroke or lack of oxygen is put on artificial support.

Doctors work hard to save the patient’s life, but sometimes there is a complete and irreversible loss of brain function. The patient is declared clinically dead. Only then is donation an option.” (Emphasis added)

This is termed “brain death” and organs are harvested while the patient is still on a ventilator (breathing machine) and has a heartbeat.

But as a May 29, 2018 Wall Street Journal article Doctors Face Scrutiny About Defining Death- As families challenge the determination of brain death, physicians are changing their approach.”, the assumptions about brain death are now being challenged because of cases like Jahi McMath, a 13 year old girl who suffered complications after a 2013 tonsillectomy in California and was declared “brain dead” but who is still alive in New Jersey after her parents refused to allow the ventilator to be removed.

With this article as well as a February 5, 2018 New Yorker magazine article titled “What Does It Mean to Die?” about the McMath case, the public is now becoming aware of the ethical, legal and medical controversies surrounding “brain death” and questions are being asked.

One doctor quoted in the Wall Street Journal article stated:

“Dr. Ross believes states should adopt laws that would allow people to choose their preferred definition (of death). One likely consequence would be that physicians wouldn’t do the brain-death examination if an individual doesn’t want death determined based on neurological criteria, she says.

For some of us, it is more about the quality of life rather than quantity of life,” she says.” (Emphasis added)

Alarmingly, the use of “quality of life” determinations as a basis for withdrawal of treatment decisions expected to end in death are already a serious problem when it comes to people with brain injuries or disabilities.

And doctors like Dr. Doyen Nguyen are writing articles like Brain Death and True Patient Care” that cite encouraging results regarding survival and even some good recoveries when severely brain-injured patients received newer treatments like body cooling and neuro-intensive care.

MY JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE FACTS ABOUT BRAIN DEATH

Back in the early 1970s when I was a young intensive care unit nurse, no one questioned the new innovation of brain death organ transplantation. We trusted the experts.

However, as the doctors diagnosed brain death in our unit and I cared for these patients until their organs were harvested, I started to ask questions. For example, doctors assured us that these patients would die anyway within two weeks even if the ventilator to support breathing was continued, but no studies were cited. I also asked if we were making a brain-injured patient worse by removing the ventilator for several minutes for the apnea test to see if he or she would breathe since we knew that brain cells start to die when breathing stops for more than a few minutes.

I was told that greater minds than mine had it all figured out.

It was years before I realized that these doctors did not have the answers to my concerns either. After more investigation, I found that my questions were valid.

I also discovered that some mothers declared “brain dead” were able to gestate their babies for weeks or months to a successful delivery before their ventilators were removed and that there were many cases of “brain dead” people who lived for months or years and even grew proportionally and achieved puberty.

If the legal definition of brain death is “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem” (Emphasis added), these cases would seem to be impossible.

And when I served on a hospital medical ethics committee, I was horrified when one doctor found a less rigorous set of brain death tests at another local hospital and proposed that we adopt this standard so that more of our patients could be declared “brain dead” for organ donation.

Investigating further, I also found “near-miss” cases like Zach Dunlap’s. Zach Dunlap is a young man who was declared brain dead after an accident in 2007. Testing showed no blood flow to his brain and he was being considered for organ donation when a relative discovered a physical response. Four months later, Zach was making plans to return to work. In an interview, he said he heard a doctor say he was dead and it “just made me mad inside”.

CONCLUSION

As I pointed out in my Spring, 2016 NCBC Quarterly journal article titled “Brain Death: Do We Know Enough?” :

“When cases like those of McMath and Dunlap are routinely dismissed instead of rigorously investigated to establish the facts, medical certainty is not achieved and medical integrity is undermined. In addition, when hospitals set their own standards and policies for determining brain death without external accountability, lives—as well as the essential and necessary trust in the health care system—can and possibly will be lost.” (Emphasis added)

Personally, I am not against all organ donation.

In the past, I have offered to be a living donor for a friend who needed a kidney, watched my grandson cured of a rare disease through a bone marrow transplant and told my family that I wanted to donate my corneas and any other tissues that can be taken after natural death.

I am open to new facts but, until then, I refuse an apnea test or any other test to specifically determine brain death if I have a severe brain injury.

And I will not sign an organ donor card.