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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
her EEG, every frequency that indicates higher
function is flatline. There's nobody home. The
wheel is spinning, but the hamster has died.
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.
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.
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?
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.
October 29, 2003