Last Monday, NPR’s All Things Considered aired a four-minute package, reported by journalist John Hamilton. A podcast episode from NPR about ventilators — specifically, post-intensive care syndrome (PICS) — recycled this package earlier this week. In it, I noticed an unsettling quote from a critical care specialist, Dr. Amy Bellinghausen of the University of California, San Diego:
Unfortunately, oftentimes, when they’re coming off the ventilator, it’s not the same person as who went on the ventilator.
“Not the same person.”
I’ve heard this a few times regarding patients who have PICS, or post-intensive care syndrome. It’s a disturbing talking point to say the least. What are we telling patients who survive COVID-19 when we talk about them like a ventilator irreversibly changed their very identity?
Personhood runs deeper than ability
The first patient featured in this package is David Williams, a COVID-19 survivor and “former Marine who spent a week on a ventilator”. He discusses his functional limitations and how his abilities return as he spends more time off the ventilator.
Yet the doctor Hamilton interviews comes in to tell us that Williams, along with anyone else who’s ever been in intensive care, may not be “the same person” as they were before intensive care. What does this say about our collective definition of “personhood”?
Yes, PICS can cause a sudden and traumatic change in a person’s abilities — but they’re still the same person.
A plethora of disability rights activists and scholars regularly grapple with this question. This realm of disability studies draws from philosophy and ethics — and asking a philosopher to define “personhood” will probably prompt them to write a book-length answer.
While many of these answers argue that disabled people are not independent and therefore do not deserve the same human rights as non-disabled people, such beliefs do not hold up to international legal frameworks. The 2006 United Nations Convention on the…