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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2007, 08:22 GMT
Vegetative state drug review call
Zolpidem works on nerve cells in the brain
The husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state who was given an experimental treatment has said she would not have wanted the drug.

A court ruled the 53-year old woman should be given sleeping pill zolpidem - against her family's wishes.

The treatment, which has worked in a handful of cases, was unsuccessful and the woman was allowed to die.

Her husband called for a review into use of the drug in such cases "without the pressure of a court case".

Early research showed that zolpidem can bring people out of a vegetative state, but it has only been successful in a handful of cases to date.

If she was a dog and we said it was incurable and we said I'm going to lock it in its kennel and not feed it, I think the RSPCA would be knocking at your door
Husband of woman given zolpidem

Laurence Oates, the outgoing Official Solicitor, proposed that the woman, who was diagnosed with PVS after a brain haemorrhage while on holiday in August 2003, undertake a three-day trial of the drug.

Her family did not want her to take part in the trial, preferring to let her die, as she may be left seriously disabled.

They were also concerned she might awake temporarily and realise the condition that she was in.

Sir Mark Potter, head of the High Court's family division, gave the go-ahead for the zolpidem to be given in November 2006.

Her husband, who cannot be named for legal reasons, told the BBC that his wife had told family members she would not want to be rescued "against all odds" if she was going to be left with a very poor quality of life.

"We didn't want her to suddenly awake and find she had lost her higher faculties, that she was crippled because of tendon contraction and so on.

"In my opinion, while I recognise that the Official Solicitor was attempting to cover all the bases, he wasn't actually acting in my wife's best interests in that the family and everyone who knew her would have said she wouldn't have wanted the drug trial."

Family vigil

When she was given her treatment, her husband, daughter, mother and brother were at her bedside fearful of what would happen if she did awake.

"We were all there on the basis that, although we had been told it would be very unlikely she would respond other than by going to sleep, we couldn't bear the thought of her waking up in a strange room with strange faces, not knowing what was going on.

"There was a palpable relief when 15 minutes or so after she was given the drug she just fell asleep."

He said no-one had considered what would have happened if his wife had woken up and said she did not want to live like this.

"If the Official Solicitor is appointed to represent the interests of the patient they should be representing those interests and trying to find out what the people who would have known her views would have said were her best interests.

"I do think it needs to be reviewed. It should be looked at without the pressure of a court case waiting to be heard," he said.

High court

After his wife's nutritional support was withdrawn, it took 14 days for her to die, which he said was not a dignified death.

"If she was a dog and we said it was incurable and we said I'm going to lock it in its kennel and not feed it, I think the RSPCA would be knocking at your door."

A spokesman for the Official Solicitor said the drug had been given to ensure that everything possible had been done.

"Where, as a result of mental incapacity, an adult is unable to reach his or her own decisions about medical treatment the High Court may be asked to declare what is in the best interests of that person.

"The Official Solicitor provides legal help for vulnerable people in these circumstances in the interests of achieving justice and providing an independent voice."

Dr Evan Harris, MP and member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee, said it was appropriate for the patients best interests to be represented before a judge in order to reduce the potential conflict of interest for relatives and the hospital or care facility concerned.

"However where a relevant advance directive by the patient exists, this should be respected," he added.

Husband tells of family's distress



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