Miraculous and horrifying. Something’s still going on upstairs, 12 years after his accident, and this is the first technological baby step towards harnessing it. You can imagine in the future how a portable brain-scan device might give people with his condition a chance to communicate day to day, however primitively. It’s like digging through 20 feet of avalanched snow and finding someone who’d been given up for dead still alive. Miraculous. But imagine how he spent those 12 years. Patients suffering from “locked-in syndrome” — which is very different from a vegetative state — often (but not always) at least retain an ability to communicate with their eyes. If properly diagnosed, the people around them will understand that they can communicate and the patient will know that those people understand. One man who suffered from it was even able to tweet before eventually opting for assisted suicide. Someone in a vegetative state, which is what Scott Routley was thought to be in, has none of that. If he wanted to communicate, even just to let his mother and father know that he understood them, he had no outlet until now. Horrifying.
There’s no way to avoid a Terri Schiavo comparison here, although the fact that Routley is capable of communicating doesn’t necessarily mean that she would have been capable under similar circumstances. I’d be interested in hearing a neuroscientist’s opinion of their comparative cognitive function. Did she suffer more brain damage than he did — enough so that she couldn’t have responded to commands even through the MRI? Then again, even if she couldn’t have, the whole point of the Routley experiment is that experts in this field may be taking for granted how much awareness a presumably vegetative patient retains. With that much uncertainty, who wants to roll the dice on starving someone on the fingers-crossed assumption that they won’t feel a thing? I’ll leave you with this harrowing thought from the darkest days of the national screaming match over Schiavo. I remember getting into it with a friend who was absolutely convinced, to a metaphysical degree, that Schiavo was nothing but a husk of a human being that retained no sensate abilities whatsoever. She was dead by any reasonable definition of the term, he insisted. In that case, I asked him, why bother wasting several days by slowly starving her to death? Why not just wheel her over to the crematorium and dump her in? Good point, he said, why not? So, there you go.