2018 Large Newspaper - Gold

Mike Hixenbaugh spent months with sheriff’s deputy Nick Tullier and his family as they struggled to get him the treatment he needed after being shot three times, including once in the head. In a compelling four-part series, Hixenbaugh described how specialists at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston quickly determined that Tullier wasn't in a coma or a vegetative state, as previously thought, but was drifting in the netherworld between consciousness and brain death. He knew who he was and where he was but could do little to show it. Hixenbaugh reported that thousands of people are discharged to nursing homes or acute care hospitals each year, assumed to be unconscious after suffering a severe brain injury. According to some estimates, more than 40 percent of such patients may be in what scientists have dubbed the “minimally conscious state.” In his reporting on Tullier’s case and others, Hixenbaugh raised questions about the standard treatment offered to those who have suffered severe brain injuries and described the latest research on how the brain can wire and rewire itself over time, even after injury. He discussed the legal and ethical issues surrounding the difficult decision on whether to prolong the life of someone in a minimally conscious state. “This series was excellent,” said judge Sarah Wild, a freelance science writer from Johannesburg, South Africa. She said the writer wove the science into the narrative, while providing human faces for the story “without being heavy handed.” Hixenbaugh said he was new to the medical beat when he learned that so many living in a vegetative state might be covertly conscious. He described efforts by physicians and scientists to understand and exploit the brain’s plasticity to help them. “Thank you to AAAS for this award and for bringing more attention to their remarkable efforts,” Hixenbaugh said.