The last time I saw Margaret Worthen was in November 2012. She was in New York participating in a study of patients with severe brain injury. As soon as I walked into her room, I knew something had changed. She was still immobile, but she noticed my presence, was more attentive and engaged. And there was something else: She at times was able to use her left eye to answer simple yes or no questions. That morning, she seemed to relish her new found fluency. She responded with verve, as if the determined downward swoop of her eye could signal an exclamation point.
Communicating with one eye may not seem like much, but it was something to behold. Maggie, as she was known, had suffered a complex stroke six years earlier, during her senior year at Smith College, that involved areas deep in her brain. She had been thought to be in the “vegetative state” — the term commonly used to define the unconscious brain state most of us associate with the right to die movement and the legacies of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan and Terri Schiavo.