Coma: A Pause Between Life and Death

Vincent-header3

There was a flurry of activity surrounding his body – buzzing sounds, blinking lights, hands flying in and out of view. There was shouting. There was a panic. Then there was a silence. The noises and commotion had not stopped, but the patient’s heart did. An eerie, ringing silence muffled the background noise––death was knocking. The stillness that comes from the awe of gazing upon the grandeur of death’s door was broken by a team of physicians who came crashing into view. They fought to save his life. And after seven minutes, the enemy of longevity, death, retreated. The man’s pulse returned; the physicians had saved his heart. However, they were not able to save his mind. His brain had spent too much time without oxygen, and the anoxic brain injury bell toll rang. He was standing on the edge of a coma.

Twenty-four hours later, the man showed little signs of improvement. Repeated testing of his brain-stem function gave little signs for hope. He wouldn’t speak, open his eyes, or move his limbs. He was estranged from his sons, so they debated over the phone from different cities about keeping him on a ventilator or taking him off. This man who once had hopes and dreams was now alone, trapped inside his mind. And then, the next morning, his niece showed up at the entrance to his room.

Hearing her uncle’s story, and seeing his condition brought tears to her eyes. As we explained the circumstances and discussed the expectedly extended trajectory of his recovery, she grabbed his hand gently and looking at us with watery eyes said she knew he would get better. He was showing minimal signs of recovery, but she had found reason to believe in spite of what she saw. And though it was touching to hear, it seemed as if time did not agree with her.

Days went by and the man did not improve. His sons could not come to an agreement on what to do with him and his niece could not relinquish her optimism. Every morning she sat at his side, his hands clasped in hers, whispering words of encouragement. It was something worth marveling at, really––seeing hope thrive like a single flower in such a barren valley of despair.

It was a privilege to witness such courage, and an even greater privilege to see her courage rewarded. The next day the man began to twitch when his nail beds were pressed. The following day his eyes opened. The day after that he began to turn his head when his name was called, and the day after that he began show responses to simple instructions like “raise your eyebrows” or “turn your head”. Within days his breathing apparatus was removed, and he was beginning to form words again.

The next morning when I examined him, he had taken leaps and bounds overnight. With effort, he was able to follow almost all my instructions, displaying remarkable gains. He was forming sentences and it seemed as if he was the most aware he had been since I first saw him. He was possibly more aware than he would have liked to be. With the return of his cognition came the full realization of his condition––he could barely move the lower portions of his body. When I asked him to raise his legs or move his feet, he was still having significant trouble. As his mind grappled with the reality that he still could not move his limbs at will, he looked at me with a pain expression and tears started running across his face.

I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting him to cry. But his aged face stayed focused on my confused one. “Don’t lose hope.” I fumbled. “It may take some time, but you can do this.” I was at a loss for words and that was all I could scramble for. I grabbed his arm with intention, “Whatever you do, don’t give up.” He slowly nodded. He was being prayed for.

When rounding with the attending and team three hours later, I found the man was sitting up in bed seconds away from practicing walking with a physical therapist. My jaw was scraping against the floor. What is this power that moves over human life? What is the source of this hope, this courage, this strength that mankind shows in times of sorrow and duress? Who can reach into the depths of a man’s mind and lead him back to his loved ones safely? How could someone stand so close to the brink of death, and so quickly find his way back to life? Was this man’s entire recovery simply attesting to the magic of medicine? Or had I glimpsed into the eyes of a miracle? Was this the heart of the ministry of healing?

The room was lighted with smiles and laughter. The man was moving. He was speaking intelligibly. And what else would be some of his first words other than a quip against the US president? I smiled and thought of these words, “By prayer the sick have been encouraged to believe that God will look with compassion upon them. A ray of light penetrates to the hopeless soul, and becomes a savor of life unto life.” (EGW, Adv. Review and Herald, 1900).