SPRINGFIELD, Mass – A severely beaten and comatose 11-year-old girl is now breathing on her own, officials said Thursday, two days after Massachusetts' highest court ruled the state had the authority to remove her from life support.
Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services, said doctors have weaned Haleigh Poutre off a ventilator in the past week.
"She can intake air, but she can't swallow on her own," Monteiro said.
Haleigh has been in the agency's custody since she was hospitalized four months ago with a badly damaged brain stem that authorities say resulted from abuse. Thinking that she was in an irreversible vegetative condition, the state had gone to court to seek permission to remove her from life support.
Haleigh's stepfather, Jason Strickland, is charged with beating the girl and could face a murder charge if she dies. He has fought to keep her on life support, but this week's high court ruling said he has no say in her medical care.
"This is exactly the point we were trying to make. What's the rush? Just give her a chance," attorney John Egan said. "Medical science is not that certain. We would hope the whole process will slow down, and everyone will step back and end the compulsion to end her life."
Officials first reported changes in Haleigh's condition on Wednesday, a day after the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the agency had the authority to remove her ventilator and feeding tube.
Monteiro said the state now has no immediate plans to remove her feeding tube, and more medical tests will be performed Thursday. She said Haleigh had responded to some testing on Wednesday but would not specify what the tests or responses were.
When Haleigh was hospitalized four months ago, her doctors said she was in a permanent vegetative state and would die within a few days without the feeding tube.
Some patients with severe brain stem injuries may partially recover from a persistent vegetative state, but they rarely recover fully enough to communicate, feed themselves and live ordinary lives, Dr. Steve Williams, chief of rehabilitation medicine at Boston Medical Center, told The Boston Globe in its Thursday editions. But he said recovery is more likely with children than adults.
"There's more plasticity to their brain. There's potentially other areas of the brain that can take over," he said.
Haleigh's aunt and adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, also was charged with assault. But less than two weeks later, she was found dead alongside her grandmother in a possible murder-suicide.
Haleigh's biological mother, Allison Avrett, had supported removing the girl from life support. She said she met with officials and doctors Wednesday but would not comment on reports of her daughter's responses.