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Unresponsive Wakefulness Syndrome in Children after Near-Drowning: Long-Term Outcome and Impact on the Families

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Kluger, G. J.; Kirsch, A.; Hessenauer, M.; Aust, H.; Berweck, S.; Sperl, W.; Betzler, C.; von Stulpnagel-Steinbeis, C.; Staudt, M.

Among 131 children admitted to our institution for early phase rehabilitation after freshwater near-drowning (ND) between the year 1986 and 2000, 87 were in unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS) for at least 4 weeks after the accidents. An anonymous questionnaire was sent to the families after 0.5 to 15.0 years (median: 4.6) and 48 mothers and 51 fathers of 55 of these 87 children were interviewed after 6.6 to 23.8 years (median: 13.8) of ND. At the time of the interviews, 8/55 children were able to perform daily living activities independently, 36/55 children were not able to do so (many of them suffered from chronic medical conditions like spasticity or disorders of swallowing), and 11/55 children had died. Health-related quality of life (HRQoL) was, however, similar to the normal population for mothers, and even higher for fathers. Furthermore, the ND accident had apparently not lead to a higher rate of separations of parents but had increased their likelihood to have further children. Feelings of guilt were highly prevalent (23/47 mothers, 20/47 fathers), and correlated with lower HRQoL of the respective parent. We found correlations between duty of supervision and feelings of guilt and between outcome and HRQoL for only the fathers. In conclusion, we found that after 4 weeks in UWS, the long-term neurological outcome of pediatric ND victims is often but not always poor. Despite often severe disabilities or death of the child during long-term care, parents surprisingly report little impact on their HRQoL, on the stability of their partnership or on their wish to have further children. Our findings may help parents and physicians to choose the best treatment for a child in UWS due to different etiologies striking the balance between rehabilitation and palliative care.

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