Friday, April 01, 2005

"Because the alternative would be unthinkable"

In the 1990 movie Awakenings Leonard Lowe (Robert DeNiro) is a patient in a mental hospital who, due to encephalitis, has been catatonic for more than twenty years. Thanks to an experimental treatment pioneered by Dr. Oliver Sacks (Robin Williams - I know, you're having Patch Adams flashbacks, but not to worry; Awakenings is pure drama.) Lowe experiences a miraculous but brief, well, awakening.

While trying to win approval for his new treatment, Sacks consults with Dr. Peter Ingham (Max von Sydow) who had previously attempted to treat persistent catatonic encephalitis patients. During their meeting, the following exchange takes place:

Ingham: Most died during the acute stage of the illness, during a sleep so deep they couldn't be roused. A sleep that in most cases lasted several months. Those who survived, who awoke, seemed fine, as though nothing had happened. Years went by - five, ten, fifteen - before anyone suspected they were not well...they were not. I began to see them in the early 1930's - old people brought in by their children, young people brought in by their parents - all of them complaining they weren't themselves anymore. They'd grown distant, aloof, anti-social, they daydreamed at the dinner table. I referred them to psychiatrists. Before long they were being referred back to me. They could no longer dress themselves or feed themselves. They could no longer speak in most cases. Families went mad. People who were normal, were now elsewhere.

Sacks: What must it be like to be them? What are they thinking?

Ingham: They're not. The virus didn't spare the higher faculties

Sacks: We know what for a fact?

Ingham: Yes.

Sacks: Because?

Ingham: Because the alternative would be unthinkable.

In considering Terri Schiavo's case, I was reminded of this scene because in this case there was some doubt as to whether or not Terri Schiavo was in fact in a persistent vegetative state. What if she weren't? What if she weren't and the Florida legal system just starved her to death?

That, too, would be "unthinkable", wouldn't it?

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