Unlike many TV and movie depictions of the condition, being in a coma is a very serious condition that can have long-lasting effects. Most comas do not last more than a few weeks, but there are people who are stuck in one for months or years. The longer a person is in a coma, the less likely they are to wake up. While the time spent in the coma may differ, the stories of these people waking up are quite remarkable.
In 2008, 60-year-old retired baker Sam Carter had fallen into a coma from severe anemia, which occurs when a person’s red blood cell count gets too low or the blood lacks hemoglobin. In the hospital in Staffordshire, England, Carter had been in a coma for three days, and he was given a 30 percent chance of recovering. The doctor suggested to his wife that she should play some music for him. His wife got a set of headphones and put them on her husband, playing the Rolling Stones classic “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Amazingly, once the song was played, Sam opened his eyes.
Sam says that the song gave him a new energy, and pulled him out of the coma. He doesn’t remember much from the coma, but he remembered hearing that song. The song also had special meaning to him as it was the first single he ever bought when he was 17 years old. He said it gave him the push he needed to wake up.
In early 2012, 32-year-old Sarah Thomson got a blood clot on her brain and it ultimately led to her being in a coma for 10 days. When she awoke, she thought it was the year 1998. She thought that her favorite band, the Spice Girls, were still together, and she didn’t know Michael Jackson was dead.
More importantly, she didn’t recognize her children or husband. In 1998, Thomson was 19 years old, had just given birth to her first son, and was still with her ex. So, when her children came in, she was expecting that her eldest would be a baby. Instead, he was 14 years old. She didn’t even remember the other two children. As for her husband, she thought he was someone who worked at the hospital.
Outside of the hospital, Sarah acted like a teenager. She threw tantrums and was rebellious. She listened to loud rock music and dyed her hair wild colors. She said it took a while, but she is readjusting to her life and has re-fallen in love with her husband.
8Ben McMahon, Sandra Ralic, And Michael Boatwright
Growing up in Australia, Ben McMahon learned French and Mandarin, but was never fluent in them. In 2012, he was in a car accident which left him comatose for a week. Doctors said he would be lucky if he survived. He beat the odds and woke up but, oddly, he only spoke Mandarin and couldn’t speak English. He could also write in Mandarin.
Eventually, Ben regained the ability to speak English, but didn’t lose the ability to speak Mandarin. As of September 2014, Ben is living in Shanghai where he attends school, but also gives walking tours of the city. In fact, his Mandarin is so good it impresses native speakers, and he is the host of a TV show in Shanghai.
While that almost sounds too wild to believe, it’s actually happened to other people. Thirteen-year-old Sandra Ralic, from Kinn, Croatia, was studying German and she had just started reading German books and watching German television shows, but wasn’t fluent in it. Then, she was in a coma for 24 hours. When she came out of the coma, she could only speak in German, and couldn’t speak in her native tongue.
Finally, there is the amazing story of American Michael Boatwright. He woke up in a hospital bed in California speaking Swedish and claiming his name was actually Johan Ek.
Boatwright had lived in Sweden and had a Swedish girlfriend in the past. While many urban legends discuss people waking up from a coma speaking a brand new language, that is not a medically recognized phenomenon. However, people can lose the ability to speak their primary language while retaining access to a secondary language that they already know to some degree. It’s speculated that they seem more fluent in the second language afterward because they no longer default to the first one.
Fred Hersch is a well-known, respected, and prolific contemporary jazz pianist who moved to New York in 1977 at the age of 21. In the early ’90s, Hersch went public about being diagnosed with AIDS.
In 2008, the disease wreaked havoc on Hersch, and he contracted HIV dementia, but recovered from that. Then, in June, his blood oxygen levels became really low, and he went into septic shock. As each of his organs started failing, Hersch fell into a coma. He was under for two months before he finally woke up. After that, he was on a feeding tube for eight months.
The 10 months in bed completely ravaged his body and his motor functions. Over the next year, Hersch worked hard at his physical therapy, and he kept practicing the piano. Interestingly enough, the piano helped him get better; he said it gave him something to strive and work for. By 2010, he was performing again. To researchers, it was interesting because Hersch remembered eight dreams from his coma and wrote the 90-minute concert “My Coma Dreams” based on what he remembered. While people do remember dreams from comas, Columbia University’s Dr. Rita Charon said that words don’t exactly explain what a coma dream is like. Music may offer even further insight into the secrets of coma and thinking while unconscious.
On August 16, 2009, 17-year-old Jarrett Carland and his best friend were in a car crash. His best friend was killed, and Carland went into a persistent vegetative state. Doctors said there was a very good chance that he would never wake up.
Carland underwent therapy, and part of that therapy was listening to music. In the care center where Carland stayed, the other patients listened to soft and gentle music, but Jarrett’s parents blared country music legend Charlie Daniels—specifically his classic song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” After lying in a coma for four months, his parents got a reaction from that song, and eventually Jarrett came out of his coma. Six months later, at the Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Jarrett got to meet the man who helped him while he was in his coma: Charlie Daniels. Jarrett’s family says that they expect him to make a full recovery.
In 1988, while working on the railroad, Jan Grzebski received head injuries while trying to connect two railroad cars. According to a report coming out of his home in Dzialdowo, Poland, he was in a coma for 19 years. His wife tenderly moved him every hour so he would not get bed sores. Then, he woke up, and the world was completely new to him. Poland was no longer a communist country and he had to be introduced to his 11 grandchildren. The story was picked up by news organizations around the world, including the Associated Press and the BBC.
However, after the story made headlines, Grzebski claimed the stories were complete exaggerations. He had been in a coma for only four years. When he woke up from the coma, he was still mute and paralyzed, but was completely aware of what was going on around him. He watched television and knew that Poland was no longer communist.
It’s interesting because his story was already pretty amazing. He woke up from a coma after four years, then had 11 more years of being paralyzed and mute. He was finally talking and even learning to walk. When the reporter who broke the story was asked about the inaccuracies, she said her version of the story was correct. Also, she said that there are different types of comas, including ones where people stay asleep and ones where they wake up sometimes. Grzebski’s doctor confirmed Grzebski’s descriptions of his disabilities.
Gary Dockery was 33 years old when he was one of two officers from the Walden, Tennessee police department called to a domestic disturbance on September 17, 1988. When he approached the house, he was shot once in the head. The other officer did CPR and called an ambulance. Medics got him to the hospital, and doctors were forced to perform a surgery that removed 20 percent of his brain. However, it was too risky to remove the bullet or the skull fragments. Dockery lay in a vegetative state for over seven years.
On February 11, 1996, Gary’s family was arguing in his room about what to do about an illness he had contracted. They were trying to decide if it was best to go ahead with the surgery to remove some fluid from his lungs or simply let him pass on. That’s when Gary started talking.
Over the next 18 hours, he talked to his family, whom he recognized. He recognized his sons, who were 13 years old and five years old when he went into the coma, who had aged to 20 years old and 12 years old when he woke up. He remembered things from his past, like the names of his horses, and he remembered camping trips. In fact, he was looking forward to going on the annual camping trip next year. He didn’t remember the shooting, and wasn’t aware of how much time had passed.
However, after those 18 hours, Gary began to talk less, although he was more aware and was learning how to use a motorized wheelchair. Sadly, just a year after speaking, Gary died from a blood clot in his lung on April 15, 1997.
In 1984, Sarah Scantlin was a vivacious 18-year-old college freshman who had an incredible lust for life. Popular and attractive, Sarah had many friends, and she was the leader of her dance group in college. On September 21, Sarah was leaving a bar in Hutchinson, Kansas and, while crossing the road, a car hit her, knocking her into incoming traffic.
The driver, who was drunk, fled the scene without stopping. Her skull was crushed when a second car hit her, but she was still alive. She was taken to the hospital, and her head injuries were extensive; the only thing she could do on her own was breathe. She was in a coma for a month. Her parents chose to keep her alive, even being told that she would probably never wake up again. Sarah was moved into a nursing home in April 1985.
In the nursing home, Sarah learned to swallow so she could eat without a feeding tube. The staff also tried to get her to communicate with blinks; she did occasionally, but for the most part she was unresponsive. After being in the hospital for 16 years, an employee at the nursing home, Pat Rincon, worked on trying to get Sarah to communicate, even though she wasn’t trained in speech therapy.
Every day for four years, Rincon would work with Sarah and encourage her any time she made a noise. A year after Rincon started working with her, Sarah started screaming. She would use the screams to communicate. For example, she screamed when her parents were leaving her or if the television was on the wrong channel.
Then, on January 12, 2005, Sarah said her first word since her skull was crushed. Pat was reading a story to Sarah when another patient interrupted them. Pat told the patient she’d be with them shortly, if that was okay. Then Sarah repeated the word “okay.” After almost 20 years of being suspended between a coma and reality, Sarah was talking again. After a month of working with her, Sarah called her mom and dad at home, who were overwhelmed to hear the voice of their daughter again.
Due to the injuries she received in the accident, and the years spent in the coma, her body was greatly affected and she uses a wheelchair. She speaks only a couple of words at a time, but can communicate with people. Although she was almost 40 years old when she came out of the coma, she believes she’s a 19-year-old teenager.
In July 1984, 19-year-old Terry Wallis and his friend were in a horrible car crash when their car plunged into a creek. His friend was killed and Terry, who was found the next day, was left in a coma. His family, including his wife and six-week-old daughter, took care of him as the world continued on for 19 years.
That was until June 11, 2003, when Terry first started talking. The first thing he said was “Mom” when he saw his mother. It was followed by “Pepsi” and then “milk” and eventually it got to the point where he was speaking in full sentences. His memories were good, but he was completely unaware of how much time had passed, and he had a hard time grasping that it was 2003. In the past 19 years, so much had changed. To him, Ronald Reagan was president, but when he woke up a second Bush had been elected. He missed the whole Clinton administration. He missed the September 11 attacks and the ensuing war in Iraq, just to name a few.
Wallis was left paralyzed from the crash, but talks fairly coherently and in full sentences. Doctors are unsure why he woke up, but he has been studied quite a bit because of his unique story. Doctors believed that over the 19 years, Terry’s brain essentially rewired itself. Once there were enough connections, it made his brain “wake up.”
At the age of four, Haleigh Poutre was taken out of her mother’s care and given to her aunt Holli. Haleigh lived with her aunt, her aunt’s boyfriend-then-husband Jason Strickland, and three other children for years until Holli officially adopted her niece. This was allowed even though between September 2001 and September 2002, Massachusetts social services received over a dozen calls regarding Haleigh’s well-being. The eight-year-old was often covered in bruises and looked unkempt. When they investigated, Holli said that Haleigh just bruised herself.
On September 11, 2005, when Haleigh was 11, she was brought into the hospital because she had lost consciousness. When the doctors examined her, they found that her brain was so badly damaged that it looked like she had been in a high-speed crash. The results of the injury put her into a coma, and the doctors were sure she would stay in a permanent vegetative state. On September 20, Holli and Jason Strickland were arrested for assault. Just after being bailed out of jail, Holli went to her grandmother’s house and there they made a suicide pact; her grandmother shot Holli, then herself.
Strickland was now the only person facing assault charges, and the state was looking to remove Haleigh from life support. However, since Strickland was her stepfather, he made a motion to become her “de facto” parent. In doing so, he was going to try to keep her on life support. One of the reasons he wanted to keep Haleigh alive was that, if she died, he’d be charged with murder.
The state won, and Haleigh was taken off life support on January 18, 2008. Miraculously, Haleigh started to breathe on her own and was able to follow commands. Eventually, she got to the point where she started smiling, waving, and saying a few words, but was confined to a wheelchair. She mostly communicates through a letter board on a tray attached to her wheelchair. Amazingly, after two years, she was able to testify at Strickland’s trial. Holli was believed to be the mastermind, but Strickland was sentenced to 12–15 years in prison in November 2008.
Haleigh’s case brought massive changes in how social services in Massachusetts look at allegations of abuse. In September 2010, at the age of 16, Haleigh was adopted by her foster parents, Keith and Becky Arnett, after being in their care for two years.