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Any doctor or family members considering turning off a ventilator or withholding food and water from someone who is ‘brain dead,’ or to use the currently preferred term, in a persistent vegetative state, should read the article Reborn by Steve Boggan in the UK Guardian first.

We have always been told there is no recovery from persistent vegetative state – doctors can only make a sufferer’s last days as painless as possible. But is that really the truth? Across three continents, severely brain-damaged patients are awake and talking after taking … a sleeping pill. And no one is more baffled than the GP who made the breakthrough.

For three years, Riaan Bolton has lain motionless, his eyes open but unseeing. After a devastating car crash doctors said he would never again see or speak or hear. Now his mother, Johanna, dissolves a pill in a little water on a teaspoon and forces it gently into his mouth. Within half an hour, as if a switch has been flicked in his brain, Riaan looks around his home in the South African town of Kimberley and says, “Hello.” Shortly after his accident, Johanna had turned down the option of letting him die.
Three hundred miles away, Louis Viljoen, a young man who had once been cruelly described by a doctor as “a cabbage”, greets me with a mischievous smile and a streetwise four-move handshake. Until he took the pill, he too was supposed to be in what doctors call a persistent vegetative state.

Across the Atlantic in the United States, George Melendez, who is also brain-damaged, has lain twitching and moaning as if in agony for years, causing his parents unbearable grief. He, too, is given this little tablet and again, it’s as if a light comes on. His father asks him if he is, indeed, in pain. “No,” George smiles, and his family burst into tears …

Although these awakenings are the most dramatic aspect of the zolpidem phenomenon, Percy Lomax, the chief executive of ReGen Therapeutics, the British company funding the South African trials, believes Nel’s work with less brain-damaged patients could be the most significant. Many stroke victims, patients with head injuries and those whose brains have been deprived of oxygen, such as near-drowning cases, have reported significant improvement in speech, motor functions and concentration after taking the drug.

No one should ever be written off. No one’s life should be ended because he or she is too much trouble, an inconvenience, or has no ‘quality of life’ which is what people say when ‘too much trouble’ is what they mean but they don’t want to sound selfish.

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