A remarkable episode of Panorama on people with severe head injuries showed the BBC at its best

The programme raised ethical quandaries on the meaning of consciousness and consent, and showed how much we still have to learn about those who are "locked in"

Related Topics

Last night’s Panorama was an example of what the BBC can do when it puts its mind to it, but too rarely does.

In case you didn’t see it (and I’d urge you to watch it on the iPlayer) the programme looked at victims of severe head injury, so severe that they are classified as being in a “vegetative state”.

Except, that thanks to the pioneering work featured, it has been found that some of these people, about one in five, should not be classified thus. This group of patients may actually be aware, and conscious for differing periods, but are effectively “locked in” to bodies they cannot control.

The scientists and medics featured in the programme have even been able to establish communication with some of them. Using a brain scanning machine they ask the patient to imagine playing tennis. If this results in blood flow to the relevant sectors of the brain (indicating they are complying with the instruction) they move on to asking them to imagine moving around their homes, which stimulates a different part of the brain.

They then asked one of the featured patients a question: If you are in pain imagine moving around your home. If you are not, imagine playing tennis. The relief on the faces of the parents of the man in the scanner when the “tennis” part of the brain was activated was palpable.

It was moving stuff and as well as featuring the families of those who found their horribly injured offspring were aware, it also showed a family who were told that their son probably wasn’t. Not everyone who participating was lucky enough to get good news.

A superb piece of film making then, the only downside being the irritating background piano music.

The programme also subtly raised some serious questions without either taking sides or ramming them down the throat of the viewer, as so many television producers do these days, treating their audiences as stupid.

The stinger came at the end: A number of “vegetative”  - and I rather despise that term - patients in Britain have been allowed to die through the withdrawal of, for example, food and water.

What was not stated, and lingered in the mind after the film had ended, was this: What if some of those were among the group of patients who don’t appear to be aware but are. Just think about that for a moment. Were they, in fact, wrongfully killed; alive, aware, but unable to communicate their distress at being starved to death. Now how do we deal with that?

One of the programme’s subjects was a man who has made a miraculous recovery from a severe head trauma such that he is now able to move, and communicate by using a letter board (the patient painstakingly points at the letters on the board to spell out words).

He was able to describe what it felt like to be locked in - if my memory is correct he likened it to “screaming at a wall”. And yet his joy (and the filmmakers were there) at his release from hospital and return home was obvious.

Which raises another awkward question: What if some of those “locked in” patients wanted to end their torment by ending their lives, assuming the pioneers working on the scan technique can achieve a sufficient level of communication to ask the question. Would it be appropriate to ask? If there could be a chance of easing their suffering? Or if they could recover.

There are no easy answers. And there are no right answers. Perhaps we shouldn’t be seeking them so much as we should be asking more questions before taking decisions. Even decisions that appear to be “kind” and made with the best of intentions.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own