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Handbook for Mortals : Tube Feeding (Fluids and Food)

What about tube feeding when the person is unconscious?

Many people can be supported with artificial feeding even though they do seem to be conscious. Some stroke patients may never again respond to any stimuli. Many young people have suffered head trauma and are also permanently unconscious. Two well-known court cases involved Karen Ann Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan, who both lived for years supported by feeding tubes though they were never aware of their surroundings. These patients are said to be in a persistent vegetative state. Are we obligated to keep such patients alive even though there is no hope of their recovery to a conscious state? If we do choose to withdraw the tube feeding, would these patients experience a painful death? Would we be killing the patient?

The courts and medical practice have ruled it acceptable to withhold or withdraw tube feedings from such patients. This is not taking an action to kill the patient; rather it is allowing a natural death to occur. Again, all the advantages of dehydration in any dying patient will benefit these patients in their last days. They can die a very comfortable and peaceful death.

The real struggle for the families of these patients is an emotional and spiritual one. Can we let go? Are we continuing the artificial feeding for us or the patient? If the patient could make his or her own choice, would the choice be to withdraw treatment and allow a natural, peaceful death?


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