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Nobody's Home
Why do fundies insist on tormenting the dead?
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Zepps Commentaries
October 28, 2003

The human brain is an amazingly complex thing, with an estimated five terabytes of storage, billions of passageways, and the ability to create more such circuits as needed. Everything has redundancy built in. Not only that, but several different parts of the brain can contribute, wholly or in part, to some action.

Take speech, for instance. Different parts of the brain control movement of the tongue, lips, vocal cords, and jaw. Still others control the respiration. Then there is the sense of what is being said, the meanings behind the words. Different sections control primary, or native speech, while other parts store speech learned in late childhood or adulthood, so-called secondary speech. It may explain, in part, why none of us completely lose our native accents.

The type of speech is controlled by different parts of the brain, and the results can be stunning. Speech therapists learned some time back that people with profound aphasia, who have lost the ability to utter a single word of regular speech, can sometimes be taught to communicate quite well either through sign language, song, or poetry. Different parts of the brain control the respective vocabularies of each, and an aphasic who still has the sense and meaning behind the words can often use these detours. Some aphasics can learn to speak quite fluently in a foreign language. But their own language is gone, usually for good.

Even cussing requires a different part of the brain, and this is most obvious with people who have Tourette's. Such people ejaculate sounds, which can be grunts, cuss words, words with extremely negative connotations such as racial epithets, or sometimes they just spit. Groups of words that create a negative emotion apparently get stored somewhere aside from native spoken vocabulary. I knew one girl who had Tourette's who used to go around randomly shouting "Satan!" "Fuck!" "Piss!" and so on. One day, she got ticked off at me, and the next day she apparently was still steamed, because she was coming up the hall (this woman was never going to sneak up on you) and I heard "Zepp!" added to her list of foul words. It lasted for a few days, and the local parish priest gave me a distinctly odd look the next time I saw him. Yes, they (her husband also had Tourette's he was a spitter) lived next door to a Catholic Church, with whom they had an interesting relationship.

The brain can be amazingly fragile. A good friend of mine had a 40th birthday party, and suddenly realized he didn't know the names of any of the people at his party. Within an hour, he felt very dizzy and his short-term memory was gone. Concerned, his SO took him to the hospital. He never came out. A month later he was dead, killed by a tumor the size of a grain of rice in his brain stem. It was a really sucky death.

The brain stem takes care of a lot of the real basic stuff, such as respiration, and most other "automatic" functions like digestion, heart beat, temperature control, reactions to light, sound, and movement, and spontaneous muscular reactions, particularly facial muscles. A human being can lose huge amounts of the rest of the brain, and the resulting slab of meat will still be able to breathe, twitch, groan, smile, and have a wake/sleep cycle.

Ninety percent of the brain can be a ruin, utterly destroyed by blood saturation or swelling in the confined space of the cranium, or both, and the body that brain occupied lives on. The body continues to burp, fart, sweat, and eliminate, but there's nobody there. The body is as insensate as those insects that are sometimes born without a head, but who nevertheless live for a few days before starving.

I remember how horrified I was when I was a kid, and I saw one of those sports. A hornet, or rather, half a hornet. No head, no thorax. Just the abdomen. It just lay there, twitching a bit, and if poked, would reflexively try to sting. I was appalled and frightened. The relatively tame horror movies of the 50s hadn't prepared me for something as ghastly as this.

Terri Schiavo is that hornet. She's in a persistent vegetative state and has been for over 13 years. She is never, ever, going to wake up. Her mind is gone, destroyed. All that is left is the carcass, with the brain stem keeping the autonomic and instinctive stuff going.

She twitches and shifts her weight. She coughs, grimaces, her eyes follow objects, if only briefly. If her trauma was fresh, she would be what neurologists call Glasgow Coma Scale Level 3. But after thirteen years, her condition is considered intractable. She smiles without meaning, watches without comprehension, sighs without emotion.

There's a picture of her, apparently leaning forward with an expression of exhilaration on her face, wearing a wide grin, head held back disarmingly. The religious right have been plastering it all over the place as part of their campaign to "save her" by showing that she isn't brain dead, and is aware and happy and ready to get up and tap dance at any moment now. In a movement given to gruesome and mawkish deceptions, this one is viler than most. The picture shows the vacant stare in the eyes, but it doesn't show the hand that is surely supporting her from behind (there is no way she could sit up on her own), and the grin is the muscular spasm of a head trying to maintain balance but in imminent danger of falling back because there is no voluntary muscle control. It's a rictus, not a smile. One can discern humanity in that face as readily as one can read emotion in a happy face button. Both are equally profound.

The far right, of course, is spreading all kinds of secondary stories about how the husband wanted to divorce her (apparently untrue) and refused her medical treatment (at one point he took her to a facility to have a stimulation device implanted in her brain ,in hopes of reviving her) and acted with unseemly haste to have her put under Do Not Resuscitate orders (that was established in 1998, eight years after the accident). Trashier rumors circulate about how mysterious her sudden illness was (a chronic dieter, she apparently suffered a severe potassium imbalance which deranged her heartbeat for several hours, leading to anoxic brain damage rare, but hardly unheard-of). Supposedly the husband, who is engaged (hardly unusual for a man in his position) wants her dead so he can remarry, and so he can get his hands on the $750,000 that she was awarded in the malpractice suit. That money is almost certainly long gone. You try staying in a care facility with constant supervision for 13 years and see how far your $750,000 takes you.

A lot of people think she might "wake up" because they've heard the stories about people waking up from comas, even after 10 years. Those stories are true, although recovery from a ten- year coma is extraordinarily rare. It's important to distinguish between a coma essentially a profound sleep and a persistent vegetative state, in which the higher- order functions of the brain are severely damaged or destroyed.

A coma is a natural part of the human healing process. Even if coma itself isn't that well understood, its role is, to the point where doctors often induce coma in severely injured patients because it will help them survive and eventually recover.

There is no such corollary for a persistent vegetative state. It is not a natural somatic response to anything. It is an extreme distress signal that something has gone horribly wrong. It is no more a part of a healing process than empty eye sockets are part of the mind's efforts to correct for a stigmatism.

On her EEG, every frequency that indicates higher function is flatline. There's nobody home. The wheel is spinning, but the hamster has died.

Dr. John Young, Dr. William Maxfield, and Dr. William Hammesfahr are the three "medical experts" that the parents and their right wing backers hauled into court to swear that she might just wake up and take up mountain climbing at any old minute now. Young is a radiologist, which makes him about as well qualified to give a neurological evaluation as an automobile transmission specialist, Maxfield's line isn't identified, and Hammesfahr, apparently a neurologist, is noted for his publications in that well-regarded bastion of scientific rigor, the National Enquirer. It's even his lead credit on his webpage.

If he's really a neurologist, he needs to be taken out and horsewhipped for his role in this cruel farce. The images show significant atrophy of the brain, apparently visible to laymen, and that is the final determining factor that tells any reputable doctor that the show is over, the trai has left the station, and this is a dead parrot.

Even worse is the disgraceful and unAmerican behavior of the Florida legislature and Governor Jeb Bush, who decided they could just rush through a one-armed- man-with-a-limp ex post facto law, and overrule the courts. If allowed to stand, it would be the end of America, since no free country has ever permitted elected politicians to trump the courts. Such a situation, by its very nature, trumps freedom, since now there is nothing to stop politicians from passing any law they wish. If the Florida lege passes a law saying you can't discuss George Putsch's youthful drug use, who's gonna stop them?

Almost certainly, a court will rule the "Terri Law" unconstitutional and reinstate the original decision to remove the feeding tube from the carcass. If they don't, then America will be just as dead as Terri is, and just as unlikely to ever come back.

2003 Topplebush.com
October 29, 2003

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