Ethics in Medicine

Last night, while I was shadowing in the ICU, I saw a patient who is in a vegetative state for years now due to the brain surgery she had to relieve swelling from an aneurysm. The doctor stopped right in front of her doorway and started telling me her case: she can breathe on her own without the need for a ventilator, she has some simple neurological function like retracting from pain, but she can’tcommunicate. Since everyone in the ICU appeared to be sedated, I was at first concerned that the patient would be uncomfortable because we were talking about her. Even though I knew that she was in a vegetative state, I was aware of her stare,and felt like she was staring at me. However, when I voiced my concerns to the doctor, he said that she couldn’t track anything with her eyes. I still felt aware of her stare, and all I wanted to do was give her a smile or hold her hand, do something small that might ease ten seconds of her existence.

Existence is what it has come to be for her. The life that she led before the surgery is long gone, and there isn’t much waiting for her except death. This was an interesting case to see because it brings up the question of ethics in medicine. Although she’s in this state, there are still some neurological functions that prevent the doctors and family members from “pulling the plug.” The measures for resuscitation have been reduced, so if she were going into cardiac arrest, the doctors would not do multiple tries to bring her back to life. Nonetheless, knowing that she will return to the ICU for another infection is heartbreaking. We do not know what she is thinking or what she wants in this situation, all we know is that we have to keep waiting.