Jackie lies motionless, incapable of smiling, or crying, or responding to a gentle touch. She is seemingly dead to all that is around her. Her doctor has diagnosed her as being in an irreversible "persistent vegetative state" (PVS). She is only a "vegetable."
Yet she breathes. She sleeps. She can swallow spoon-fed meals of broth and nutrient "shakes." She may live for thirty years like this. Never laughing. Never crying.
She is a "vegetable." But she is also a mother. Her children mourn for her. They want her with them, but not like this. Someone suggests that by withholding food and water they would simply be letting nature take its course. Certainly she would not want to live like this. It would be an act of charity to let her die, they say.
On the other hand, when is the last time you did something charitable for a carrot? A vegetable cannot suffer. So how can death put a vegetable out of its misery?
If she is human enough to suffer, then clearly she is a person, not a "vegetable," and she deserves all the love, care, and respect due all persons. Even like this, she has still been created in the image of God. Are we too blind to recognize anything God-like in her passive silence? Her patient endurance? Her calm acceptance of an undisclosed, divine Will?
By withholding food and water, Jackie, like anyone else, will die. But since she is incapable of appreciating the generosity of this refusal to feed her, it is not charity for her sake. At best it is an act of charity toward the family which grows weary at her side. At worst, it is an act of selfishness on the part of a society which does not want to share in the cost and inconvenience of sharing her family's burden of care.
If she is human enough to suffer, then clearly she is a person, not a "vegetable."
When faced with any moral quandary such as this, we must constantly ask ourselves, "What is God's will in this?" Is He somehow shaping her soul, purifying her, preparing her for her day in heaven? Can something be going on behind those sightless eyes, something beyond the knowledge of man?
Or is God perhaps using this soul as an instrument of grace for shaping the souls of those around her? Is He using her to call forth compassion, patience, endurance, and love from her family, her caretakers, her society?
By causing her to die through our neglect, are we interfering with God's Will for her? Or are we rejecting His Will for us? Are we rejecting an opportunity to practice sacrificial love?
What would Jesus do if He were standing at her side? Would he not reach down, take her hand, and call on her to awake?
In fact, to those not blind to God's healing hand, this is exactly what Jesus does. According to a recent medical study of 84 PVS patients, over 52% of the patients recovered within one year. After three years, 58% had regained consciousness. After extensive review of the data, researchers were unable to identify any reliable way to predict who might recover and who might not. In other words, every PVS patient has a chance of recovery.¹
Researchers were unable to identify any reliable way to predict who might recover and who might not.
According to Dr. Keith Andrews, Director of Medical and Research Services at the Royal Hospital and Home, PVS patients "are not being allowed to reach their optimal recovery because they are not offered the opportunity of rehabilitation programs... The experience of our Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit is that nearly all of those patients admitted in PVS are suffering from under nutrition... and have developed deformities which further inhibit recovery." According to Dr. Andrews, "Rehabilitation for these patients has not been tried and found wanting; it is wanted but, too often, not been tried."
By starving our PVS patients to death, are we not denying God the opportunity to work miracles? Are we not denying Him the glory and thanksgiving that is His due?
Six weeks after Jackie lapsed into a coma, six days after her family followed their physician's advice and asked a court to authorize withholding of food and water, Jackie woke up. Today, she is fully recovered.
Anyone who has seen Robert DeNiro in the film "Awakenings" will appreciate how joyful and awe inspiring such awakenings can be. Truly they are instruments for shaping souls. If nothing else, they teach us humility, reminding us that we have only the faintest understanding of the workings of the human mind, much less the Divine mind.
Can something be going on behind those sightless eyes, something beyond the knowledge of man?
Perhaps we need to be like children, for they often see more clearly than "sophisticated" adults. I am thinking especially of the homeless youth who carried his brother into Boy's Town. If this brave lad had instead been seated at the side of his PVS mother, he may have uttered these simple words for the ages: "She's not a vegetable. She's my mother."
1. Levin, "Vegetative State After Closed-Head Injury", 48 Archives of Neurology, 580-585 (June 1991) cited in LIFE AT RISK, 1:( 6) Dec. 1991