July 8th, 2010
04:27 PM ET

Visiting brain-damaged mom, a collision of instincts

I am not sure which instinct took over first. When I heard the story of Abbie Dorn, I remember listening with my "head" as a neurosurgeon, and also listening with my "heart" - as a dad. Like you probably will, I thought of Abbie's three children. I have three of my own.

Abbie was young, recently married, and wanting to start a family. It did not happen easily. She underwent IVF, and was finally told she was pregnant. Triplets. It was the most exciting day of her life.  Abbie's mother told me all of this, because Abbie cannot. You see, something went terribly wrong during the delivery. There was bleeding, more than two liters. Abbie's heart failed, and for too long her brain went without oxygenated blood.

Abbie survived, but she was left in a state where she can barely move, cannot speak and only blinks her eyes.  As you will see as I examine Abbie,  it is this blinking that is now at the heart of a bitter legal controversy.

Abbie's parents, her therapist and her lawyer believe she is communicating through those blinks. They believe she is letting them know: "I want to see my children." Her husband, who has since divorced her, thinks otherwise. He thinks that there is no way she could be communicating, and that it would be damaging for the children to see their mother in this condition. He worries the triplets, who are now 4 years old, might one day blame themselves for what happened to her, at the time of their birth.

There are gray areas of medicine, and that is especially true  when it comes to the brain. Doctors don't agree on Abbie's condition. And, now to try and settle this, medicine and the legal system will collide.

Of course, when sitting back and thinking about this whole situation, my dad instinct took over once again. I wondered if the focus regarding Abbie was misplaced. Regardless of her condition or her ability to communicate or interact, do her children have a right to see their mother? And, does Abbie have a right to be with her children? There are no easy answers, but I am eager to hear what you have to say.

Program Note: See Dr. Sanjay Gupta's full report on Abbie Dorn tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.

soundoff (682 Responses)
  1. LisaVt

    Four years have passed since this tragedy began. These children are preschoolers now. What has this mother missed? The smell of her infants' heads as she holds them close. The touch of her cheek next to theirs. The sight of those toothless smiles. Watching them take toddling steps. Hearing their little voices cry, laugh, babble. Hearing them say "ma ma" over and over. Staring at them as they sleep. What a sad story. Despite this mother's limitations, I get the impression she can hear, see and likely have some sense of touch. She can experience her children at some very simple level that a "normal" person might take for granted. If she is communicating and connecting with those around her, she is likely capable of feeling joy from just being with her children. I agree with everything said already at the ability for children to look past someone's differences and just see someone for who they are. I have a 3 1/2 year old. I can't imagine just meeting her now and not having known her up until now. They shouldn't let another day go by ....

    July 11, 2010 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Ana

    It's clearly a sensitive subject, but that is a vegetative body. The mother of those children died during birth. To take children to view a corpse that has been kept alive through scientific advances is a ghoulish, nightmarish prospect, and I doubt that beautiful young woman will be sending any 'Thank You' notes to the people who have kept her body alive in this horrible condition. I'm terribly sorry for her parents loss, it is a tragedy for them, but to drag this out, and traumatize children with the sight of this, is ghoulish and wrong.

    Take some video of the vegetative body, show them when they are old enough to decide to see. If it were me in that bed, and my children, I'd ask that they be showed pictures of me when I was alive and healthy, and not to be shown my body in such a terrible state. It is absolutely wrong to take small children to view that semi-animated corpse.

    July 11, 2010 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rachel

      My mother died of brain cancer. At the end of her life she was not lucid. I guess I shouldn't have visited her or taken my son, her only grandchild. I mean, she was only a corpse right?

      March 26, 2011 at 09:47 | Report abuse |
    • Aneriz

      As a mother and as a Christian I see life as more then just a body when is healthy and a corpse when it is not. To me a body is the house that we live in. It grows, it decays with the years, it gets damaged with disease; but the person that lives inside remains the same. Because of that I see this as a true tragedy. That young lady that went to the hospital expecting to start a family is still alive and well inside that broken body. Let her have the comfort of knowing her children.

      March 26, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse |
  3. Nomi

    Of course she should see her children and they should see her. They belong to each other and both have the right. She is their MOTHER. It will actually be easier for them now while they are young and, if prepared, can get used to seeing her as she is. Visits through out their lives are appropriate. It is much easier this way than being shocked as an adult.

    July 12, 2010 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Linda, RN

    I, too, wear two hats. One is as a Mom and the other as a Neuro ICU RN. Many families I have cared for have children and are in a quandary about whether or not to bring in their children to see their loved one. I always tell them to consider the maturity of the children,, but generally offer to be with them to explain to the children what's going on with the patient. I have never had a child "freak out". I explain it to them based on their level and they get it. Kids are a lot smarter than some adults give them credit for and this situation would provide those children with the compassion and love opportunities that make children into kinder adults. I don't know if this Mom is communication or is in a vegetative state and certainly Dr. Gupta would be a much better judge of this, but as a Mom and Grandma, I believe that these children would benefit from meeting their Mom. They will forever have the loss of a Mommy, but this will give them an opportunity to heal a very small bit from their loss. Their Dad had a huge job as a Mom and Dad to these little children, but should give them the chance to "know" her as best they can. As many others have said, kids are amazingly resilient. God bless all of them in this horrific tragedy.

    July 12, 2010 at 02:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Joyce

    Read through these comments. Absolutely everyone agrees that the mother and the children both have a right to see eath other. The children will grow up and resent their father for what he is doing to them..this is awful and just plain rediculous. The father seems to be thinking only of himself and not of his children and their needs.

    July 12, 2010 at 12:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jessie

    I think that it is absolutely absurd that this woman is not allowed to see her children. Obviously there are people there in the room for them to watch over the children. My brother was recently injured in an auto accident and suffered severe brain injury in April – he is still recovering and has just been able to eat regular food. The one thing that we have learned quickly is that brain injury patients NEED to see familiar things such as fmily and friends. This woman could be laying there trapped inside of her body unable to reach out. And it could be that by seeing her children she is able to make some progress that would enable her to be able to reach out. For pete sake people we are talking about ahuman being not a rabid dog! Let her see her children!!

    July 12, 2010 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. sammy

    As a medical student, I am just now starting to see these gray areas of medicine, and realizing the ethical dilemma's faced in medicine. In my opinion, if she can respond to questions via blinks, that is good enough for me. Take for example pathologies such as "locked in syndrome," where a patient's basilar artery is damaged, essentially taking the pons in the brainstem offline subsequently causing entire body paralysis, except in the eyes. These people are fully aware of surroundings and have conscience still, and can maintain communication via blink. She carried not one, but three children to term. She lost her life as she knew it, she should at least be allowed to see the children. Even if the children are not allowed to see their mother now, won't they ask, "where's mom" at some point. I think if the father was a little more rational in explaining the situation to his children, especially reminding them how much their mother wanted them(i.e. the In Vitro fertilization), it would be my assumption that they would grow to understand and know who it was the essentially sacrificed her life to give them theirs. Even if they are prevented from seeing her now, they will find out the truth eventually, and then what? They will have to sort out a dilemma when they are mature, rather than learning to accept it over time and the course of their youth.

    July 12, 2010 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. jeff

    I am a child 40 of this situation its not easy

    July 12, 2010 at 19:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. william wallace

    People write comments with false understanding that the mother / some way alive
    they fail to understand / as it having been failed to inform them the mother is'nt alive.

    The life support should have been removed in times past yet for good bad relatives
    feel they be kind where/ prolong a individuals death with very false hopes beliefs
    of religious nature / that its wrong in turning off means which in truth only keeping
    a corpse alive. Doctors should have the final say in / such matters where its clear
    the situation hopeless / where individuals have no hope of recovery, thus stopping
    forceful methods in keeping them alive / reject reasons made upon religious beliefs
    in keeping them forcefully alive / thus the setting the soul free from its mortal frame.

    July 12, 2010 at 20:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Bill

    She's not going to get any better – her neurologists even describes the condition as 'permanent' in court papers.

    The question is can you force very young children to travel coast-to-coast to visit when she is not competent to interact with them?

    She has also, on prior visits, screamed out in pain (muscle spasms) in the presence of her children, who are not old enough to understand why.

    This legal case appears nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for the grandparents to force visitation with themselves (when they themselves don't have the legal standing to do so)

    July 13, 2010 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Cantherapist

    As a child therapist, I guarantee these children have already asked where their mother is? What they have been told to this point is of great significance in how to manage going further. Bless them all.

    July 14, 2010 at 16:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Concerned mother

    The motives of the ex-husband should be questioned. It's obvious he doesn't want to be inconvenienced by his wife's tragedy, but why should he deprive his children of TRUTH? The truth will set youfree. What damage will be done to the children when they find out. The truth ALWAYS comes out. The selfishness of people never ceases to amaze me. In the name of Jesus, I pray for this women's miraculous recovery and for the ex-husband's heart to be convicted and softened toward the mother of his children.

    July 22, 2010 at 18:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Ali

    My siblings and I were kept from knowing our biological father until we were 18, because our mother had a difficult time admitting to the "mistake" of the marriage then divorce, given the societal norms of so many years ago. We met him and had difficulty, not in meeting him, but in trying to understand how he and she could have allowed so much time to pass without letting us know the truth. Several years ago he was in an accident and lost his eyesight. My siblings and I were the first ones at the hospital to be with him when we heard, staying until we knew he would survive.

    We now have children of our own, and they all love him—despite his disability—and eagerly anticipate the times that we get to visit with him. We clue him in as to where things are happening and provide a running commentary to keep him "looking" in the right direction and to aid with whatever facial expressions he may want to show/reflect. We do it in a natural tone of voice, and do it for everyone in the room, not singling him out, and there is never any pause or awkwardness on the part of our children.

    This ex-husband is making the same mistake our mother made, for selfish or scared reasons. We would all be happy to tell him just how damaging it is for children to be kept from ANYONE of their family members who can offer a child unconditional love and support. This is a time when the Courts need to view the situation over time and realize that their "expertise" might well be informed by the "average people" out here who have experienced situations similar to this one. As many of you have said, children are resilient, accepting when shown how to be, and capable of so much love, despite the obstacles.

    Again, all of our children benefit greatly from, and enjoy thoroughly, their time with their Grandpa.

    July 26, 2010 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. FLMomof3

    First, I personally think the "dad" is a lowlife.... He divorces his wife after she suffers a tragedy DURING CHILDBIRTH, then refuses to allow her children to visit with her... Enough said!

    This MOM has every RIGHT to see her children, just as they have the RIGHT to see her, regardless of the situation. No one can possibly know what level of consciousness she has currently. Seeing her children may well have a WONDERFUL effect on her.

    "Dad" should take a long hard look in the mirror and realize what a POS he really is!

    July 30, 2010 at 16:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. sheilas

    it is a heart breaking story.............

    it is rediculous for the Dad now to allow the children to see their mother.

    What a horrible Dad!

    March 26, 2011 at 05:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Kim

    This is a terrible thing...it saddens me to hear that the father does not want his children to see their mother. It was not her fault that this happened. No one knows really what the mother can understand or feel..the brain is baffling. There have been many miracles in life. If she can communicate through blinking then obviously some part of her brain is functioning. No the children should not be left alone with her, but the children's grandparents will be there to keep and eye on them. Or is the father keeping the kids from the grandparents as well...if so it is just selfish on his part. There is no reason why they should not be able to see their mother and their grandparents. Their grandparents I'm sure would like to have them around and they are really the only ones that would be able to give great insight as to who their mother USED to be when she was young. The father should be telling the kids how much their mother wanted and loved them and how their was a terrible accident during childbirth and this was a rare thing. Explaining to the kids and reassuring them that this in no way was it their fault, and allowing them to have supervised visitation will give both mom and kids time to know each other in a different way then the normal standard way. I am a mother of 3 and would be completly devastated if someone tried to keep my children away from me whether i was coherent or not they are still my children and would like them to know who i was and who i am today. Have some compassion for the mother she obviously wanted to have kids. What harm can come from them going and visiting with their mother...NONE...if she does something that startles the children then you sit them down and EXPLAIN to them what happened or explain to them before hand some of the things that might happen and what she is like before they go visit...LET THE MOTHER SEE AND FEEL AND HEAR THE LAUGHTER OF HER CHILDREN...NOTHING GOOD CAN COME FROM KEEPING THEM AWAY.!!!!!

    March 26, 2011 at 10:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Guest

    Well, let me see; a single father with three kids to take care of... now why wouldn't he want to take the children across the whole nation? Three children cost a lot of money, especially for a single parent who can't keep an eye on them while working. Is it really worth bankrupting the family so that the children can see their mother, when she can't interact with them in any meaningful way? Will a regular visit really be worth more to the children than some financial security? And in that I think the father is right; this is about what's best for the children, not the mother, not the father; and not the grandparents.
    It might sound cold, but money does matter, especially if it's short.

    March 26, 2011 at 13:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lordgangluff

      Yes, it is worth it. A mother is worth more than money. And what gives you the idea money is an issue?

      March 26, 2011 at 22:31 | Report abuse |
    • Lady Minerva

      My heart goes out to this mother, but a visit might do more harm than good to the children. Also my heart goes out to the father who is raising the children alone and I know that it isn an easy task. What about his job security concerning a cross country trip to take the children to visit? This is not fairyland but the real world. It's not likely the mother ever remembered she had children unless her parents keep telling her about them. Again IT IS DOUBTFUL she understands language. If she responds to blinks does she understand the words to blink or do the people asking her, blink as they ask her she then just attempts to copy them? In the video I did not see anything that resembled an actual BLINK. This whole thing seems to be all about the grandparents wishes over the father's rights. I hope they have to come to where the father lives and stay at a hotel if they want to visit so the children. I think the visitation should definitely be supervised by the father. I think this father was probably forced to divorce his wife due to the health care system's vicious pursuit of the huge medical bills which would have put them out of house and home. I think DSS and courts should keep out of this case unless they only check out the the way the children are presently being taken care of. Apparently everyone has survived just fine for this long, so why change it? It would definitely be upsetting to these small children to leave them with people they probalbly don't even know! COURTS SHOULD PUT THE CHILDREN FIRST AND NOT GRANDPARENTS OR A MOTHER THAT PROBABLY WOULD NOT EVEN KNOW THEY WERE THERE.

      March 27, 2011 at 18:48 | Report abuse |
  18. Guest

    And a second issue is time. How many days does he get off work? Is it really in the best interest of their children that they have to spend a large portion of those days of traveling to the mother instead of doing things they (the children) would like to do? Not to mention how much stress traveling a few thousand miles with small children – both for the father and the children.

    March 26, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lle

      And money.
      That is the best you've got?

      The children shouldn't get to know their mother because the trip would cost too much and take up too much of the father's time?
      Is it that you place no value on the mother-child bond?

      Somehow, you don't understand that the children could actually gain from interacting with their mother even if she cannot interact with them. Children are accepting. They are more able to accept the disabled and adults. And children grow up to become adults with legitimate questions about their mothers. It is better that they have the memory of interacting with her, even in such a limited way, than to grow up to resent him for preventing them from seeing their mother.

      March 27, 2011 at 05:16 | Report abuse |
  19. Agree with Flmomof3

    What a POS this dad is. Did he forget the line "for better or for worse" when he married Abbie. Was the sacrifice too much for you or did you not anticipate any bumpy roads in the marriage? Why is there a need to live so far apart. It seems very selfish on his behalf and I certainly hope he allows the triplets to see their mother for more than the mandated 5 days each summer as ruled by the judge. Have we really lost our compassion as a people?

    March 26, 2011 at 14:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Val

    Abbie is a living, breathing, human being which means she is still in possession of her spirit. Her human spirit is completely capable of wordless communication with her children–something they would benefit from greatly. Their presence with her would be mutually beneficial as connection through eye contact and physical touch can transcend age and mental capacity. I'm so glad Abbie's parents have stuck by her! But imagine what contact with her beloved children could do for her well-being. The bond that was already there could bring increasing vitality to her, and to the children: a win-win situation.

    March 26, 2011 at 16:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Mandi

    She gave so much to bring these children into this world. Why would it even be an option to deprive her of contact with them? She didn't give her life. She gave her life and now has to sit in a bed and watch it all pass her by. That's a fate much worse than death, in my opinion. And not giving her contact with these precious gems that she paid the ultimate price for is just heinous. If the children had been taken to her and given regular contact with her since day 1, then the "freak out factor" wouldn't be a problem, would it?

    March 26, 2011 at 21:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Lle

    I find it interesting that every time a woman posts, it is in support of the woman.

    But nearly every single post written by a man is in support of their father.

    I sincerely believe these particular men are not able to see the true value of children interacting with a mother, even a mother who cannot interact with them. They can only see the inconvenience to the father. That is very sad. The children are the ones who stand to gain here, by interacting with their mother and carrying those memories with them throughout their lives.

    BTW, she does not live in a hospital. She lives in her parents' home.

    March 27, 2011 at 05:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Becky

    I'm trying not to judge the father ... but I'm shocked that he would divorce her "in sickness". When the kids are older and wonder about their mother, how are they going to feel when they find out their father kept them from seeing her? He's concerned that they will blame themselves, but talking them through those issues can do worlds of good. He is cutting them off, not only from their mother, but their grandparents too. It doesn't matter whether the mother will ever recover ... I think that allowing them to be a part of her life sends a strong message that there is nothing like family.
    That being said, I don't know all of the facts. I don't know what the dad is thinking. I have never been in a situation where my spouse suffered brain damage. I cannot judge him for his actions. My heart goes out to the whole family.

    March 28, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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