Hazel McHaffie

Locked-in syndrome

What the papers say

This post should carry a government health warning: If you are quickly bored with facts or allergic to conundrums do not continue with this week’s blog.

I’ve always maintained that the subjects I write about are issues which challenge us as a society; they repeatedly hit the headlines. And this remains the case. To illustrate the point, I decided to monitor the medical ethical challenges that were reported in one newspaper (The Telegraph) for just one week (4-10 August 2014) and share with you what I found. Wow! Even I was bowled over with the sheer volume of material in this category in just seven days.

Please bear in mind as you read, that papers have their own agendas and the facts might not all be correct. However, on this occasion I’m not going to research every issue or attach links or hedge the topics around with qualifiers and alternatives; all these ‘extras’ would detract from my focal point. I’ll simply itemise the issue, and leave you to ask yourself: How would I feel in this situation? What would I do in these circumstances? What should society do? What is fair and just? What are the implications for educating the public, or our limited resources, or competing demands? … Or you can just accept the point if you prefer an easier life!

So … are you sitting comfortably? …

Perusing the newspapers

ASSISTED CONCEPTION

There’s been an outcry against the first national sperm bank (in Birmingham) which openly caters for lesbians and single women who want to start a family without having a relationship with a man.

The ongoing story of Gammy, the baby with Downs Syndrome (discussed in my last post) who was allegedly rejected by his commissioning parents following a surrogate twin  pregnancy, rolled on with almost daily updates unravelling more and more bizarre aspects, bringing the whole question of surrogacy under the spotlight.

A Japanese businessman is said to have fathered nine babies during the past two years using Thai surrogate mothers. Seven nannies have been hired to care for them. Reports vary as to his motives: from ‘he wanted a big family for himself’, to ‘he’s part of a child trafficking ring’.

ASSISTED DYING

Former teacher, Dawn Faizey Webster, has been in a locked-in state following a stroke at the age of 30, two weeks after giving birth to her son. She was featured this week completing a university degree 12 years later, by blinking using a laptop that translates her eye movements into text. And yet other people in a similar state are pleading for assisted dying because life is intolerable.

MATERNAL v FETAL RIGHTS

Women who drink alcohol during pregnancy slow the development of their children’s brains, reported researchers in Los Angeles. They compared the brains of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and unaffected children over a period of two years.

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DEMENTIA

Saga conducted a survey of the over 50s and found that far more are afraid of developing dementia than cancer.

A study of 1658 Americans aged 65 and over has found that a severe lack of vitamin D appears to more than double the risk of dementia. But hey, the winter sun in the UK is too weak to generate adequate vitamin levels and older skin is less efficient at doing so. Cue salmon, tuna, mackerel and fortified foods etc etc etc.

A report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research has estimated that the number of people who are forced to retire early because they have (or a loved one has) dementia will double within 15 years.

PERSONAL LIBERTY v PUBLIC SAFETY

Several Britons have been quarantined over fears of the Ebola virus entering this country. It’s alleged that certain ‘special’ patients have been given specific experimental untested drugs to good effect which are not available to others.

MENTAL HEALTH

A nationwide survey of people with bipolar disorder, their carers and the professionals who treat them, is about to begin in this country. The researchers say it’s too often the case that other people remote from the sharp end are the ones who influence research expenditure; they want to remedy this. Critics question the morality of including people with mental illnesses.

A teenage girl in Merseyside took her own life after visiting pro-anorexia websites and self-harming.

ORGAN DONATION

A 24 year old, Stephanie Reynolds, has launched an appeal for a kidney for her mother via Facebook. Thousands of strangers from around the world have offered to be tested to see if they are compatible as potential donors. Her mother, Elaine, has an autoimmune element which means she cannot have an organ from a blood relation. The odds of finding a match are less than one in 10,000. Hence Stephanie’s Facebook appeal. Apparently such appeals have been successful in the USA.

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PUBLIC HEALTH and LIFE STYLE CHOICES

Grizzly bears gorge themselves and become obese prior to hibernation but they don’t get diabetes. Scientists are asking: Could this offer a clue for treating humans?

A report in Annals of Oncology has stated that if everyone between 50 and 64 took a low dose aspirin daily for 10 years it would prevent 6518 cancer deaths each year and 474 fatal heart attacks. But the price would include an extra 896 deaths per annum from strokes and stomach bleeds. (Hmmmm. This one affects me personally. Some years ago, taking that small prophylactic dose for only six months triggered lymphocytic colitis which has plagued me ever since. So I wouldn’t myself describe it as poetically as Christopher Howse: ‘Aspirins are the vanilla cynosure of the rattling world of pills; unsparkling but attractive, like pearls’. Not in my book, matey! Sorry, I digress.)

It seems that prostate cancer screening could save more lives than programmes to detect breast cancer – so says a European study of 162,000 men from 8 countries. That would mean saving around 2300 lives per annum in the UK. And yet … the research has concluded that such screening should not be introduced. Why?  Because a high level of over-diagnosis (resulting from the unreliable PSA test) would mean thousands of men going through needless treatment and ending up with incontinence or impotence.

RESOURCE ISSUES

A staffing agency, Prestige Nursing + Care, has issued new figures which indicate that pensioners’ incomes have fallen further behind the cost of care homes. This is adding to the pressure on NHS hospitals and putting vulnerable elderly people in danger. Also the number of people receiving home adaptations has fallen by 12% since 2010, heightening the risk and incidence of falls and injuries.

A report, The Future of Loneliness, has predicted that hundreds of thousands of pensioners will be all but cut off from services, shops and their local communities within 15 years because of the rise in the use of the internet. The result will be a hugely inflated risk of loneliness, already a worrying aspect of old age.

A ‘wonder drug’, metformin, normally used to treat diabetes, has been found to increase the life expectancy of patients with other conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. This could mean an extra two and a half – three years for today’s 65 year olds. What’s more it only costs 10p a day. But hey, we’re already struggling with the problems of an aging society …

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has decided that a revolutionary drug, Kadcyla, that is said to give women with advanced breast cancer an extra six months of life, will not be available on the NHS because it is too expensive, even after the manufacturers have offered a discount. Countries elsewhere in Europe fund it. Ahhh, the old chestnut: if you look at the individual cases, doesn’t every family want to hang on to their loved ones for as long as possible? – well, most families anyway. But add up all those astronomical bills and balance them against only a few more weeks of life and set that against all the other treatments competing for the limited pot of money, and the perspective looks different.

Researchers at Imperial College have found that injecting a patient’s CD34+ stem cells into their brain following a stroke encourages tissue repair and may save them from death or severe disability. However, an expert has said these improvements could just be due to chance or the special care this small safety trial has provided for a tiny number of patients.

FAILURES IN CARE

The Care Quality Commission has admitted that at least 750 homes providing care for the elderly and disabled have been failing to attain at least one basic standard for more than a year. Why? Because the CGC feared legal threats from the owners of the homes. As a result vulnerable people have been knowingly put at risk. The CQC say that a new regime is being introduced to make protection much more robust.

Official statistics on NHS waiting times have revealed that the number of patients forced to queue in ambulances outside A&E departments has almost doubled in three years. In addition, over 3 million people are now on waiting lists for operations – a rise of 700,000 compared with 2010 figures.

Phew! As you can see, I shall never run out of triggers for new novels! I’m constantly thinking, What if ……?

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Locked in to a fate worse than death

Tony Nicklinson is 58. He’s paralysed from the neck down, can’t speak, and his only means of communication is by moving his eyes on a screen linked to a special computer. And yet his brain is so alive and intelligent that he can hold his own in arguments with twitters and QCs alike.

Prior to the stroke, Mr Nicklinson was a handsome, successful, fun-loving man, keen on extreme sports. He was in Greece on a business trip, when he suffered a catastrophic stroke in 2005. Now he is in a locked-in state, dependent on carers for his every need, with no hope of recovery. He considers his life as ‘miserable, demeaning and undignified‘. He ‘has no privacy or dignity left‘, and he rates it a state worse than death. He’s held that view since 2007; it’s no passing whim. It’s what’s described as a ‘voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish’ in legal parlance. Watching him on The Channel 4 documentary, Let Our Dad Die, surely no one could help but sympathise with his viewpoint. Even the Greek doctor who saved his life is appalled by the consequences of his actions, although no blame attaches to him.

In March Mr Nicklinson won the right to have his case heard by the High Court. The hearing took place last week (starting 19 June). There was considerable media interest in the run up to it. Lord Falconer visited the family at home. BBC’s Fergus Walsh went to see for himself what kind of a life a locked-in patient has. Channel 4 aired its documentary. Though he could communicate with these people in his own home, Mr Nicklinson was unable to attend the hearing in person, so he stated his arguments through emails and lawyers.

His case? Simply put, he is incapable of taking his own life, so he wants the judges to rule that, when he decides he wants to die, a doctor will be immune from prosecution if he/she helps him. Mr Nicklinson fully realises that the law as it stands prohibits anyone else taking his life; that would be murder. His defence rests on the view that he is being discriminated against, because of his disability. He is looking for assistance to do what he would do for himself were he able. Furthermore he adds poignantly, why should other people be allowed to condemn him to a life of increasing misery?

His barrister described it in more ponderous legal terms: ‘a serious interference of his common law and Convention rights of autonomy and dignity’.

It’s important to note that Mr Nicklinson is not seeking a change in the law. He is seeking two declarations from the court.

1. That in the circumstances of his case – and where an order has been sought from the court in advance – ‘the common law defence of necessity would be available to a doctor who, acting out of his professional and human duty, assisted him to die‘.

2. That the current law of assisted suicide and euthanasia is incompatible with his Article 8 rights of autonomy and dignity .

The QC acting for this family argues that a prior sanction by a court ‘would provide the strongest possible safeguard against abuse’. And furthermore ‘it would also provide a safeguard against the concern, often expressed by disabled opponents of legalisation, that a change in the law would lead to a change in people’s attitudes to disabled people, who they predict would come under subtle pressure to seek an assisted death through fear of being a “burden”.’

But any loosening of the limits frightens the legal fraternity. Speaking directly to Mr Nicklinson, Lord Falconer made it perfectly clear that in his judgement, modifying the law to accommodate such an act would be ‘crossing the Rubicon’. He was himself sympathetic to assisted suicide in cases of terrible disability with no prospect of improvement, where the patient expressed a sustained wish to put an end to their misery, but ending someone else’s life is murder and that must always be unacceptable.

Pause here for a moment and ask yourself: What answer would I give to Tony Nicklinson?

Watching the documentary I wanted to weep with this man. His chagrin, his pain, were palpable. But there again, as Christina Petterson put it in The Independent,

‘… the law isn’t about how we feel. The law isn’t about how you feel if you were once healthy and fit and happy, and now aren’t. The law, as Lord Falconer said on that Dispatches, is the same for everybody. “If people want to kill themselves,” he said, it’s an “entirely private matter”, but “they can’t kill somebody else”. The law, as the disability rights campaigner Kevin Fitzpatrick also said on the programme, is meant to offer protection. “When you develop a society where some people judge that other people’s lives are not worth living,” he said, “that’s the Rubicon.”‘

There can be no happy ending for the Nicklinsons, neither Tony, nor his wife, nor his daughters. But each time a tragic case like this comes to court, and I watch the family being forced to parade their lives in front of others, to expend dwindling energy on fighting their cause, I feel there has to be an alternative.

I can, of course, see the dangers inherent in a change to the law against taking life. The consequences could be inconceivably horrible. I accept too that these extreme cases make bad laws. But the fact remains, that these exceptional circumstances do present from time to time. And they seem to cry out for special judgements.

Would it be so terrible to openly acknowledge this fact, and to relieve these families of the necessity of taking their cases to the courts? Why not constitute a sort of Ombudscommittee – a gathering of carefully selected, experienced and wise folk, representing law, medicine, religion, ethics, patients – who could quietly, rationally, compassionately, debate the very few cases which fall into this terrible legal limbo, taking guidance from others as and when they need it? Not in such a way as to drive the debate underground, not to sweep the anomalies under the carpet, but to take individual cases away from the heat and distortion of media coverage, protecting and supporting those for whom this dilemma is a lived reality not a theoretical argument.

I haven’t ever seen this idea promoted, and it’s the first time I’ve aired my own view on this. So what do you think? Would you be in favour? Or can you see some glaring reason why this would not be an acceptable way forward?

What would your solution be?

 

 

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