How was a vegetative person treated in ancient and medieval times?

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I recall hearing that nurses were told “don’t get too attached they won’t live long” about soldiers paralysed in WW2. I think even as late as the 1940s there wasn’t the understanding that you need to rotate quadraplegics to prevent blood clots and bed sores etc so they had a poor prognosis. I also recall a memoir from someone caring for a paralysed aunt in 1930s China saying she had to try to massage her stomach to relieve constipation , also a real problem without modern physiotherapist. Even if someone was caring for a vegetative patient and keeping them hydrated, bed sores and constipation would probably kill them pretty quickly as there would be little understanding of long term care needs.


Pneumonia used to be called “the old man’s friend” because it was a quick assurance of death when the body otherwise refused to give up. Before medical science began to convince us that it could treat everything, death was more readily accepted as a consequence of daily living. Children died of measles. Mothers died in childbirth. Men died in the fields kicked by a cow. Brothers died of appendicitis. There was no such thing as a “second” heart attack. Sadly, children who were born premature or with significant birth defects were made comfortable and allowed to pass. Life had a different triage standard than it does today. Death was considered preferable to being a permanent irresponsive burden on the rest of the family. Persistent vegetative state was coined as a medical term in 1972.


I doubt that anyone in a vegetative state would have survived long enough for it to really be recognized as a distinct condition rather than just a phase in the dying process. Someone in a vegetative/minimally conscious state can’t safely take in food or water, and if families tried to feed them, they’d get pneumonia pretty quickly because they wouldn’t be able to keep things from going down the wrong pipe. Edited to add: as far as how long someone could last on that state, my best guess would be days to a week or two. That’s based on my experience as a nurse with critically ill patients who transition to hospice care- not quite the same, since I’m often seeing patients who were on life support before having it removed, and who are usually receiving pain medications. But it’s probably the best modern equivalent- people who are at the end of their life and not receiving aggressive modern medical care. In an era when most people died at home, I think the average family would recognize a minimally conscious state as one of the last stages before death. I’m sure there were plenty of cultural differences in the approach to the dying, but I would guess that a lot of it is what we still see in deathbed care- keeping the person clean, trying to regulate their temperature with blankets or wet cloths, repositioning them in bed to help them breathe more comfortably, and just sitting with them.


Pretty sure “vegetative state” was an advance, we used to just call it “dead” or near enough to not worry about. However, there was a hospital in medieval Baghdad that did care for people in comas.


Since they can’t eat or drink, and intravenous was not invented until 1883, they would have died of dehydration within a week. But lots of severely disabled people did live, so long as their families took care of them. In the Gospel of John (not a historical source) there is a man who has been paralyzed for 38 years.