Life as an Extreme Sport

Misapplied Science on TV

My body is pretty persuasive when it decides I need to take a day off – something I haven’t had since before going off to Denver. It does this neat trick where my right arm will basically stop working, and any sudden or swift movement will send giant spasms through the right side of my torso – yay chronic pain. Thank god I have a pain management appointment in two weeks.

Anyhow! After sulking for a bit, I decided I’d spend the day cuddling with the cats and relaxing (since, you know, I was given little choice in the matter), and watching TV. My choice at midnight was either a FoodTV show about diners and greasy spoons (attractive, actually, in the hopes I could find something like the Crocodile around here), or a show on Discovery Health called “The Man Who Slept for 19 Years.” I asked Michael if I wanted to watch the latter, knowing ahead of time it would probably piss me off, and he asked why I’d want my blood pressure to get too low. A good point.

And hey, it only took 4 minutes to piss me off! The mother of Terry Wallis, who started speaking after 19 years in a minimally conscious state, said that the doctors gave up on her son after a few weeks, but she’d never ever give up on her son. She admittedly then made an amazing effort, for nearly two decades, of seeing her son three days a week in his nursing home, and bringing him home every weekend. On top of that, they simply treated him as if he was there, talking to him, taking him out to dinner and the movies, hunting. I think anyone involved in care of patients in these minimally conscious states, be it from accident, injury or nature of birth, will tell you that interaction is so, so important.

But insinuating that someone has given up on someone, and the moral connotations of that, because they are in a persistent vegetative state, or brain dead? That’s a level of insensitivity you would hope someone who had been in a similar situation to the people she’s making those comments about would not make!

Now granted, the medical establishment bears more than a little of the blame here – in Wallis’s case, they declares him PVS, and refused to take a look at him again when his family felt he was starting to change and trying to communicate. If they had, they would have realized the misdiagnosis before he started talking again, and likely would have gotten more significant care that would have accelerated his healing/progress. The New Scientist article I linked to notes that there is no broad-scale system in place for re-evaluating patients after the 8-week post-injury mark, which seems…like a bad idea. Largely because such policies do make these cases happen, which is bad in that I’m sure Wallis would be doing better if he had gotten more aggressive care, but also because it affects other patients and their families.

Why do you think families are so disinclined to believe the bad news of brain death, or PVS, or even coma and minimally conscious? There are just enough “miracles”, that is, medical screwups with positive results, that make it to the news every year that people want to bank on being one of those miracle misdiagnoses with a happy ending. Why not? It happens to other people, why not them?

Now, to give this show its fair due, even though I’ve yelled at the television several times in the last half hour (and will probably continue doing so the next), they’re portraying the case as the family heard it from the doctors, and moving forward from there. They’re also not making this a Hollywood story. He has no ability to make short term memory (his frontal lobe is completely atrophied), he still thinks it’s 1984, he doesn’t recognize his daughter, he believes he is fully able-bodied (he has very little physical mobility), has little to no impulse or behaviour control, and they’re not sugar-coating this. But since it is television, they’re also showing people who’ve been in shorter term, accident-based comas who’ve made full recovery, and I can see people who are watching this recreationally with little to no medical background conflating the two experiences and again, misapplying it to personal experience.

I don’t know why I watch these shows – low blood pressure is good for a soul. (Okay, fine, I do know why I watch them: I want to see what information is being broadcast to the general public. I do believe that people do a lot of their learning subconsciously, via what they see on television, be it an episode of ER, daytime talk shows, or so-called “educational” television like the Discovery network of channels. It’s an insidious sort of learning that sneaks below our critical thought horizon, popping back up months or years later sans context of where we found the data, to be applied to the situation in front of us. Since the knowledge is just there, we assume we learned and retained it and thus it passed a critical examination to be remembered, and must be valid – creating an awful lot of known false information. We see it in the CSI and ER effects and beyond. So, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on – so long as you do so with critical function engaged!)