British Judge Orders Drugs for Incapacitated Woman to "Wake Her Up"

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 20, 2006   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

British Judge Orders Drugs for Incapacitated Woman to "Wake Her Up" Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 20
, 2006

London, England ( — A British judge has decided that doctors should give a comatose 53 year-old woman a drug that has been used in experiments to "wake up" people from incapacitated states. The woman’s family opposes the decision, claiming she would not want to be alive and living with disabilities.

The woman, whose name is being withheld in court records, is supposedly in a persistent vegetative state and has been since she suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while on a vacation in August 2003.

Despite objections from her family, Sir Mark Potter, a senior family court judge, ruled that doctors should try giving the woman zolpidem before a decision is made to end her life by removing her from a respirator, according to a London Times report. reported in May that British and South African researchers discovered they could temporarily wake up patients who are comatose or in a supposedly permanent vegetative state by, ironically, giving them a common sleeping pill.

The drug allowed comatose patients to interact and talk with their family for hours before the effects wore off.

Doctors reported they gave the sleeping pills to three patients, two of whom suffered severe head injuries in automobile accidents and the third was left brain damaged in a near-drowning incident.

The report indicates the patients have been taking Ambien every day for several years with no side effects.

"The effect is amazing to say the least," Ralf Clauss of the Royal Surrey County Hospital, tells the medical journal Nature. "They can interact, make jokes and speak on the phone."

Nature reports that one patient has even played catch with family members.

In England in 1993, the first sanctioned the withdrawal of a feeding tube, ruling that it was removing treatment rather than killing a patient. Since then, British court have upheld decisions to withdraw treatment from supposedly PVS or near-PVS patients.