In Short: Humiliating & Challenging.
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Eighteen years ago, I rolled a Jeep in the desert. I spent the next six weeks in a coma, and another six weeks in a rehabilitation facility. Waking from a coma is nothing like in the movies, as with most things in movies.
I discovered I could not feed myself: there was no normal muscle control. Six short weeks in a coma and it was all gone. This loss includes bodily functions, so I found out what it is like to soil oneself with no ability to control it. Since the rehabilitation hospital was brand new (I was their first trauma patient), the staff was still training and getting up to speed. This meant there were times when I would lie in soiled sheets for over an hour before receiving assistance with clean-up and new sheets. As one can imagine, it was humiliating. This lasted for over a week.
As an adult, it’s also humbling to have someone feed you because you are not capable to do so yourself. Of course, it is obvious that I was completely bedridden with no way to sit up or do anything other than lie there. I recall on numerous occasions looking out the window at an apartment complex across the street as people came and went in their daily lives and thinking “how fortunate they are and they don’t know it.”
Finally, I gained enough strength to be helped out of bed and into a wheelchair as I transitioned from bedridden to wheelchair-bound. I still couldn’t feed myself but at least I was able to be wheeled into the cafeteria for meals. As I slowly gained strength, I was able to propel the wheelchair myself and was finally able to feed myself. Yay!
The next step was from wheelchair to walker. It was such a nice transition! Of course, in between these steps were several hours a day of tedious exercises to improve strength and dexterity. Can’t begin to tell you how many times I placed those stupid washers on the little pegs! Exercise bike, small weights, eventually struggling to walk between two handrails to gain strength to walk again, etc. — it all began adding up.
Along the way I had to learn how to dress myself. It sounds simple but I had to learn all the basics over again. I recall that wonderful day when I called my mom to tell her I was able to wipe my own butt without assistance. You have no idea how nice an improvement that was!
Next came the transition to a cane. That was so much better than using the walker, and seemed more liberating. As strength increased, I was finally able to walk on my own without assistance. Then came the wonderful day when I was escorted to my home in order to show that I could fully function on my own.
I passed the test and was finally able to stay in my own home! There were more months of physical therapy and, one year after my accident, the surgeries and physical therapy were over. Through hard work and perseverance, I was at least 95% of my pre-accident self.
If it were possible to go back in time and not have that experience, I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a fascinating journey and I appreciate the simple things so much more — and I have much greater patience.
Russell McCloud is co-owner of a family-owned and -operated automotive repair company in Yuma, Ariz., that his father started in 1969. He also served on the Yuma County Board of Supervisors from 2005 to 2021. He also wrote What It’s Like to Run for Public Office.
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10 thoughts on “Wake from a Coma”
I can really relate to the appreciation of being able to so the ‘normal’ things in life and how much patience you learn in rehabbing from a trauma. In my case it was T3 Paraplegia, so I didn’t have to go through the walker and cane stages.
Believe me, I am grateful for my recovery. I truly wish you could have the same. The re-hab folks are so amazingly patient.
I am so happy to hear that your recovery is close to 100%. I was not as fortunate as that, but I totally agree about having an appreciation for the things you CAN do.
It’s the only attitude that can allow for happiness, I am pleased you understand that fact. I truly wish you could have as full a recovery as I was fortunate to have.
My post-coma experience was at first quizzical, then terror-ridden then accepted with a sense of getting my life back to something resembling (for me) normal.
My first awareness that something was amiss came when I woke one morning and my first glance around me revealed that I was NOT in my bedroom but was, in fact, in a hospital bed. Further investigation revealed all my body parts seemed to be there and operational (I could see, feel and move them). My next thought was that there must be a valid reason for my presence there as my wife, who had had her own ongoing experiences with hospitals due to cancer, would not have allowed me to be hospitalized without valid reason. That was immediately followed by near terror as I hoped whatever had hospitalized me hadn’t also similarly affected her.
Queries of the staff attending me revealed I had been admitted about 3.5 months prior and diagnosed with encephalitis (a nasty viral frat party in the linings around the brain and spinal cord) and had been in a coma for most of my time there followed by rehabilitation activities.
I appeared to have most of my capacity for normal life, such as walking, eating and talking (including my penchant for puns) but with noticeable loss of long-term memory, some short-term memory grief, loss of my sense of smell and some difficulty reading emotions by voice and facial expressions. Having returned to sapience, I went along with the rehab and, demonstrating some pillars of my personality, reacted almost gleefully aloud the first time I realized I was receiving an electroencephalogram (wires on my head to check brain wave activity — something I’d known about for years but never before had the opportunity to experience).
After a few more weeks of rehab, I was returned to my wife’s care and we spent a couple months rooming with her father (we had been in the process of returning back to Calgary from Lethbridge as I took on my dream job when the virus invaded, and she had remained in Lethbridge to close up our activities there while I adjusted to my new job and searched for a new home) until we settled in our new home.
Afterwards, my main reaction to ongoing aftereffects was, and still is, frustration; a great deal of my work experience was lost due to the actual memories or the index for finding them having been annihilated by viral activity. It appears I have angered the Ghods as I was widowed about 3.5 years after rejoining the real world and became unemployed due to corporate mega-mergers just over a year after that and have since been certified as “severely handicapped” and moved into an assisted living environment.
Still, to quote one of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett, “I woke up not dead; that’s a good start.”
That’s a great quote, I’ll have to remember that one. My goodness you’ve been through a lot, happy to see that you have not lost your sense of humor, that’s important!
That was an interesting piece, but it almost completely glossed over the part I was actually interested in — he describes his physical recovery, but he does not say whether he came out of the coma *mentally* acute or kind of faded in slowly….
I thought about including that part, there just wasn’t word space for it. I was fortunate, I had my faculties pretty much right away. Once I was in the re-hab facility, my mom showed me a notebook she had kept as a journal. In the back were photos of all my family members and their dogs. She asked if I knew why they were there and I replied I did not. She then told me the doctors had told her that I might not know who anyone was and then showed me the back of each photo where the names were written. That was a real aha moment!
There were weeks of mental tests that kept escalating in difficulty until one day, mentally tired, I asked the therapist if even she could do the ones she asked me to do that day. She laughed and said she had to look up the answers. That was the last time we did the mental tests. All in all, I am keenly aware of my good fortune.
Recovery from complete shutdown is amazing even if slow and takes true grit. Russell’s and commenters’ stories are reminders why each time i see someone with cane or walker or wheelchair i send them a ‘wow, what courage you have!’ brainwave.
It also takes amazingly patient therapists. God bless them for the work they do.