William: You missed the mark. Or more accurately, you failed to recognize the real dilemma. Admittedly, I only read your column, so maybe not. But it seems to me that doctors make “best guesses” on a regular basis as to what’s ailing their patients. In the English patient’s case—and this is the key question—it appears her doctors believe she is aware. Speaking for myself, if total powerlessness is the hell I imagine it to be, I’d be begging my doctors not to ask me to imagine playing tennis, but to ask me if I wanted to be kept alive.
I suppose the trick is in both explaining to me my condition, and in finding ways to ask me that result in brain activity that can be interpreted as a definitive “yes” or “no”. Perhaps they already know the brain patterns indicative of distress, anger, joy or pleasure. Assuming they don’t, I can think of ways to find out. I could be as simple as gathering up some volunteers who are prone to becoming violently sea sick. Put them on a boat, get them good and sick, throw them in the FMRI, and tell them first that you’re going to keep them out to sea for weeks, and second that their boat ride will be over in just a few minutes.
I see, however, why her doctor’s responsibility to be trying to determine their patient’s wishes isn’t all that obvious to you. It’s the day and age we live in. The first thing you and most people think about when they read the story is how it might impact the euthanasia debate. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were so caught up in bringing this story to the podium, that you forgot the English patient is more than just a science experiment.