Brain-injured woman's speech returns after 20 years

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A remarkable story from Hutchinson, Kansas:

HUTCHINSON, Kan. - For 20 years, Sarah Scantlin has been mostly oblivious to the world around her the victim of a drunken driver who struck her down as she walked to her car. Today, after a remarkable recovery, she can talk again.

Scantlin's father knows she will never fully recover, but her newfound ability to speak and her returning memories have given him his daughter back. For years, she could only blink her eyes one blink for "no," two blinks for "yes" to respond to questions that no one knew for sure she understood.

"I am astonished how primal communication is. It is a key element of humanity," Jim Scantlin said, blinking back tears.

Sarah Scantlin was an 18-year-old college freshman on Sept. 22, 1984, when she was hit by a drunk driver as she walked to her car after celebrating with friends at a teen club. That week, she had been hired at an upscale clothing store and won a spot on the drill team at Hutchinson Community College.

After two decades of silence, she began talking last month. Doctors are not sure why. On Saturday, Scantlin's parents hosted an open house at her nursing home to introduce her to friends, family members and reporters.

This is a remarkable story, coming at a time that a judge in Florida is ready to allow Terri Schiavo to die of starvation and dehydration, simply for being in the same condition that Sarah Scantlin was in a month ago.

Scantlin still suffers constantly from the effects of the accident. She habitually crosses her arms across her chest, her fists clenched under her chin. Her legs constantly spasm and thrash. Her right foot is so twisted it is almost reversed. Her neck muscles are so constricted she cannot swallow to eat.

Note that last problem. The story doesn't say, perhaps doesn't say on purpose, but if she cannot swallow to eat, she must be getting tube feedings, same as Terri Schiavo. No one seems to consider that "artificial life support" in this case. Maybe that's because, in this case, her caregivers actually love her and want the best for her. The story mentions that Sarah Scantlin began to speak again because someone was trying to encourage her to speak:

The breakthrough came when the nursing home's activity director, Pat Rincon, was working with Scantlin and a small group of other patients, trying to get them to speak.

Rincon had her back to Scantlin while she worked with another resident. She had just gotten that resident to reply "OK," when she suddenly heard Sarah behind her also repeat the words: "OK. OK."

Quite a contrast from Terri Schiavo's situation -- her husband has kept her away from every opportunity for rehabilitation.

Let's go back to the lead sentence of the article for a moment: "For 20 years, Sarah Scantlin has been mostly oblivious to the world around her." How in the world do they know that? Just because she was unable to speak -- "locked in" -- evidently without the motor skills to speak or communicate beyond eye blinks doesn't mean she was unable to take in everything around her. Let me point you to a story in last Tuesday's New York Times:

Thousands of brain-damaged people who are treated as if they are almost completely unaware may in fact hear and register what is going on around them but be unable to respond, a new brain-imaging study suggests. ...

"This study gave me goose bumps, because it shows this possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they've been there all along, even though we've been treating them as if they're not," said Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Fins was not involved in the study but collaborates with its authors on other projects.

Fascinating that last week's study and this news should emerge as Terri Schiavo's life hangs in the balance. It's as if Someone is trying to send a message.

Hat tip: Catholic Ragemonkey.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 14, 2005 7:35 AM.

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