Girl's Improvement Sparks Life-Support Debate

Days after Massachusetts' highest court ruled that the state could remove a comatose girl from life support, the 11-year-old is breathing on her own, officials said.

"She can intake air, but she can't swallow on her own," said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services. Doctors have weaned Haleigh Poutre off a ventilator in the past week.

Haleigh was hospitalized four months ago with a badly damaged brain stem from a severe beating, authorities said. She was placed in the Department of Social Services' custody. The state had gone to court to seek permission to remove her from life support, because she seemed to be in an irreversible vegetative state.

Jason Strickland, Haleigh's stepfather, has been charged with beating her and could be charged with murder if she dies. He has fought to keep her alive, but Monday's court ruling said he has no say in her care.

Strickland's attorney, John Egan, said Haleigh's improvement shows why the court should have sided with them.

"This is exactly the point we were trying to make," Egan said. "What's the rush? Just give her a chance. 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 tests 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 Recovery Possible

Dr. Steve Williams, chief of rehabilitation medicine at Boston Medical Center, told the Boston Globe that 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. But he said recovery is more likely with children than adults.

"There's more plasticity to their brain," Williams said. "There's potentially other areas of the brain that can take over."

When the girl was beaten, her aunt and adoptive mother, Holli Strickland, was also 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, supported removing the girl from life support. She said she had met with officials and doctors Wednesday but would not comment on reports of her daughter's responses.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.