Here's what it means to be in a vegetative state

  • In December, it was reported that a woman in a vegetative state gave birth in an Arizona nursing facility.
  • On Tuesday, the woman’s attorney told INSIDER in an email that the woman is not in a vegetative state but is significantly cognitively impaired due to seizures she experienced as a child.
  • People in a vegetative state can open their eyes and a have sleep-wake cycle, but they lack awareness, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.
  • A coma, by contrast, is a state of unconsciousness with no eye-opening.

A cognitively impaired woman at a nursing facility in Arizona gave birth to a baby last month, prompting a sexual-assault investigation and a cascade of news reports.

When the 29-year-old patient at the Hacienda Skilled Nursing Facility in Phoenix gave birth to a baby boy in December, local reports said she was in a vegetative state after a near-drowning.

But the woman’s attorney, John Micheaels, told INSIDER in an email on Tuesday that the woman is not in a vegetative state but “significantly cognitively disabled” due to seizures she experienced as a child.

“The victim’s parents would like to make clear that their daughter is not in a coma,” the woman’s family said in a statement issued through Michaeals. “She has significant intellectual disabilities as a result of seizures very early in her childhood. She does not speak but has some ability to move her limbs, head and neck. Their daughter responds to sound and is able to make facial gestures. The important thing is that she is a beloved daughter, albeit with significant intellectual disabilities. She has feelings, likes to be read to, enjoys soft music, and is capable of responding to people she is familiar with, especially family.”

Police have now begun gathering DNA from the facility’s male employees as part of their investigation, the Associated Press reported.

Hacienda HealthCare, the company that owns the facility, said in a statement that it would “continue to cooperate with Phoenix police and all other investigative agencies to uncover the facts in this deeply disturbing, but unprecedented situation,” the AP reported.

In their first official comment on the investigation since news of the birth broke, Phoenix police said that the woman’s condition meant she wasn’t able to consent to sexual activity.

“She was not in a position to give consent to any of this,” police spokesman Tommy Thompson said, according to the AP. “So if anyone can understand that, this was a helpless victim who was sexually assaulted.”

Vegetative states are caused by injury to the cerebrum

A vegetative state occurs when the cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, is severely injured, most commonly due to head injury or any condition that deprives the brain of oxygen, Maiese wrote. If it lasts for more than one month, it’s classified as a “persistent vegetative state.” After this point, if the cause was anything other than a head injury, it’s rare for patients to regain mental function or the ability to meaningfully interact with their surroundings, he added. And if the cause was a head injury, recovery from a vegetative state becomes unlikely after 12 months.

Doctors can diagnose a vegetative state using tests like an MRI or EEG, and by observing a patient for signs of awareness on multiple occasions over a period of time, according to Maiese’s article. People in a vegetative state require care including a feeding tube and measures to prevent health problems caused by being immobile, like blood clots and pressure sores.

A person in a vegetative state can open their eyes and have a sleep cycle, but they lack awareness of their environment

Patient hand hospital bedSongpolWongchuen/ShutterstockA person in a vegetative state lacks awareness of their environment.

The Brain Injury Association of America (BIAA) defines a vegetative state as a state of unconsciousness “with some eye opening and periods of wakefulness and sleep.” (A coma, by contrast, is a state of unconsciousness with no eye-opening.) People in a vegetative state may also moan or make sounds, make facial expressions, move their eyes toward people or objects, or react to loud sounds. They are not, however, aware of what is happening around them.

“Because of these responses, they may appear to be aware of their surroundings,” Dr. Kenneth Maiese wrote in an article on vegetative states in the Merck Manual. “However, they have no awareness of themselves or their environment. Their apparent responses to their surroundings result from involuntary basic reflexes and not from a conscious action.”

A person in a vegetative state is not able to follow instructions, speak or engage in other forms of communication, and or have purposeful movement, according to the BIAA.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the woman is more cognisant than was initially reported. The family’s attorney told INSIDER on January 22 that she is cognitively impaired and has significant intellectual disabilities, but she can make some movements and facial gestures.

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