October 6, 2022

State of dying Mandela’s health disputed

Confusion over the significance of “persistent vegetative state” is in the headlines in South Africa, where former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela lies on death’s door in hospital.

Confusion over the significance of “persistent vegetative state” is in the headlines in South Africa, where former president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela lies on death’s door in hospital.

A bitter family feud over where the graves of three of Mandela’s grandchildren should be located has also provoked speculation about the exact state of his health. Mandela entered hospital four weeks ago with a severe lung infection and was placed on a ventilator. This has led to four different accounts of his condition.

His family says that he is a “permanent vegetative state”. The AFP released a leaked court documents about his condition linked to the family feud which said that:  

“He is in a permanent vegetative state and is assisted in breathing by a life support machine. The Mandela family have been advised by the medical practitioners that his life-support machine should be switched off. Rather than prolonging his suffering, the Mandela family is exploring this option as a very real probability.”

The government says he is not in a PVS. Instead, his condition was described as critical but stable after President Jacob Zuma visited the hospital and was briefed by doctors.  

His wife, Grace Machel, gave a slightly different story: “Although Madiba sometimes may be uncomfortable, very few times he is in pain, but he is fine.”

Finally, the Las Vegas Guardian Express, a popular on-line newspaper which specialises in breaking news, proclaimed that Mandela actually died on the June 25 (or 26):

“On June 26, 2013, Nelson Mandela was taken off life support after his condition deteriorated further. Sources have said that the 94 year-old Mandela died last night after his life support was shut down. A medical source explained to us that no one is left on life support after 24 hours as they are then technically brain dead.”

Later, no one else was lamenting the passing of Mandela and the Guardian Express had a bit of explaining to do. It stuck with its story:

“No-one, other than the medical staff at the Medi-clinic Heart Hospital, the family or the government has seen Mandela since the day The Guardian Express reported his death. Not even President Obama was allowed to see him. There is, therefore, not one shred of evidence that he remains alive. The Guardian Express, however, has a very well-placed source confirming that Mandela is no longer with us.”

Charlene Smith, an authorized biographer, summed up feelings about PVS: it means that the patient is dead enough. “He’s basically gone,” she told AP. “He’s not there. He’s not there.”

Michael Cook
Creative commons
permanent vegetative state
South Africa