The parts of her brain associated with imagining body movements lit up, and stopped when they asked her to stop thinking about playing tennis. When they asked her to imagine walking around her house, they saw brain activity for navigating places. Her brain looked just like a healthy person’s. “She wasn’t vegetative at all,” he wrote. “She was responding to us, doing everything we asked. I was ecstatic.”Since that startling discovery, he’s made it his mission to use this strategy to probe the minds of hundreds of vegetative patients, reporting that about 17 percent of the patients he saw could produce these kinds of brain responses in an fMRI. A review by another group of scientists of 1,041 patients with disorders of consciousness, which can include people anywhere on the spectrum from vegetative to minimally conscious, found similar statistics: about 15 percent were able to modify their brain activity, suggesting awareness. In June, researchers using EEG also saw covert brain activity in 15 percent of a group of unresponsive patients in Columbia University’s neurological intensive care unit. The patients who had this hidden brain activity were more than three times as likely to reach partial independence after rehabilitation.
There are likely thousands of people around the world who have been incorrectly diagnosed as vegetative—considered nothing more than the husks of their former selves, with no internal thoughts—when in fact they are present in some capacity, stuck inside bodies that don’t cooperate, with no way to communicate.
The trip motivated her toward her ultimate goal: to bring Leonard home to India. They were supposed to buy their plane tickets the evening of his heart attack, but had put it off until the next morning. Then their lives had changed overnight.“He has fought through, and he’s come through it,” she said. “How do you explain this? All I’ve done is I’ve just been there to support him. That’s the way I see it. I have not done anything that forces him to live. Knowing him, he’s the most passionate about his family. The fact that he can see us all with him, I think, is what’s making him fight. Who am I to stop anything if he’s trying to fight to be with us?”If you want more border stories, check out this additional package which explores how the borders that divide and surround Europe affect the lives of the people living near them.
When people go into vegetative states, they don’t go there alone. The families who wait with them, who are unsure, who are told by doctors to give up, who look for signs of awareness—they are in a kind of limbo, too.