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Girl's Recovery Stirs End-of-Life Debate
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Girl's Recovery Stirs End-of-Life Debate

Health Care

Girl's Recovery Stirs End-of-Life Debate

Girl's Recovery Stirs End-of-Life Debate
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An 11-year-old Massachusetts girl who was nearly taken off life support after a savage beating shows signs of recovery. The case raises questions about her medical team's conclusion that she could not survive.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Coming up customizing the Maiden Form, but first you may have followed the recent story of Haleigh Poutre in Massachusetts. She was the victim of a savage beating allegedly at the hands of her own adoptive mother and stepfather. Doctors said the 11-year-old would never regain consciousness. Last month, the state's highest court ruled that the girl should be allowed to die but before her feeding tube could be removed, something remarkable and surprising happened. NPR's Joseph Shapiro has more.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO (Correspondent, Science Desk):

Just one day after the court ruled, doctors in the pediatric intensive care unit noticed a change. Haleigh Poutre started to respond. A few days after that, the head of the Massachusetts Department of Social Services went to visit. A social worker put three objects in front of the girl, asked to pick up the yellow duck, she did. Asked for Curious George, she grabbed a stuffed animal. The Department of Social Services had gone to court to turn off the girl's respirator and to stop giving her food and water. Officials cited the earlier assessment by doctors that Haleigh Poutre was in an irreversible and permanent coma. Now doctors, lawyers and others are asking how so many experts could've been so wrong.

Mr. EDWARD MCDONOUGH (Attorney to Keep Haley alive): It's discouraging when the judicial system reaches a conclusion that someone is in a persistent vegetative state, yet just days after that decision the child is able to pick up a Curious George stuffed animal on command which plainly indicates to the contrary.

SHAPIRO: That's Edward McDonough, he's the attorney who argued for keeping Haleigh Poutre alive. He represented the girls stepfather. The court eventually ruled the girl's stepfather could not argue on the girl's behalf. He's been charged in her beating, and that raised questions whether he wanted her alive simply to avoid a more serious charge of murder. The other lawyers who represented Haleigh Poutre all agreed she should be allowed to die. Attorney McDonough says that conclusion was made way too fast.

Mr. MCDONOUGH: Our concern all along was that this was rushed. That social services went in far too quickly looking to end her life only within a matter of days and weeks.

SHAPIRO: There are still major hurdles to Haleigh Poutre's long term recovery. But last, the 11-year-old was moved to a Boston rehab hospital. Today she's getting therapy. Dr. Jane O'Brien is the chief medical director at the Franciscan Hospital for Children. Because of privacy rules, she can't speak directly about her hospital's most famous patient. But O'Brien says even children with the most severe brain injuries can show progress. And that kids often do better than adults with similar injuries.

Dr. JANE O'BRIEN (Chief Medical Director, Franciscan Hospital for Children): Children's brains are amazing. They are very plastic. There is often a lot of potential to reach levels that nobody expects.

SHAPIRO: There are 39 children living on the inpatient unit. They're kids but with a difference. Most depend upon some piece of technology.

Dr. O'BRIEN: Many of them would have tracheostomy tubes or tubes that they need in order to breath. They might be attached to ventilators. Many of them rely on feeding tubes into their stomachs in order to get the nutrition that they need.

SHAPIRO: Typically, a child stays at the hospital for about three months.

Dr. O'BRIEN: People hear about children when they have accidents at the time because that's often the newsworthy story. But most of the children who come into our hospital, go back out into the community and most of them, they're able to go to school. They have much more recovery, I think, than most people realize is possible.

SHAPIRO: For many Americans, the debate over Haleigh Poutre echoed that over Terri Schiavo. But Dr. James Bernat says the two cases are different.

Dr. JAMES BERNAT (Neurologist, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center): Mrs. Schiavo was in a vegetative state for 15 years.

SHAPIRO: Bernat's a neurologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. He's not the girl's doctor. But he says its unusual to give up so quickly on a child.

Dr. BERNAT: In this case this girl has been in a vegetative state for somewhat under five months from trumatic brain injury. And we know that those can recover in up to a year. Or sometimes too, people will spontaneously recover awareness.

SHAPIRO: The State of Massachusetts is keeping Haleigh Poutre's medical records private. So its not clear what her doctor saw. If she was misdiagnosed or as is common, she simply moved from a vegetative state to a more conscious one. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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