Man wakes after 20 years in a coma

It sounds like the plot of a movie, only it's completely true.  Terry Wallis lapsed into a coma over 19 years ago after a car wreck near his home in Arkansas.  He's been  in a comatose state at the Stone County Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre for most of the time since that day.  Last month, he opened his eyes and slowly regained the power of speech and a consciousness of the world around him.  

His first word was, "Mom," which was received with delight by his mother, Angilee Wallis, who aptly called her son's recovery "a miracle."  David Good, a neurological rehabilitation specialist from Wake Forest University Medical School commented that Mr. Wallis' recovery after almost two decades is so rare that statistics aren't even kept on the event.  

Terry's long-term memory seems to function normally, but appears to have been frozen back in 1984.  He awoke believing that Ronald Reagan was President, and asked for his grandmother who had died several years ago, remembering her phone number which everyone else in the family had forgotten. Jerry Wallis, Terry's father commented, "You see, he's still back in 1984."  James Zini, Wallis' family physician instructed the hospital to treat Terry as though he were awake and functioning, and his family took him home with them for periodic visits.  The few memories that he formed over the years were likely the results of conversations he overheard as he drifted in and out of the coma.  One example of this was that Terry awoke knowing what a cell phone was, even though he had never seen one.

Terry hadn't spoken to his family since 13 July 1984 when he said goodbye to his 17 year old wife and six-week old daughter and left for a drive with his close friend "Chub" Moore.  Their truck smashed through a guardrail several miles out of town and plunged 25 feet before landing upside down in a creek bed below the road.  They were found the next morning by the local police.  Eight days later, Moore died. Terry was placed on a ventilator, heart monitor and a feeding tube for long term maintenance care. There was nothing more the doctors could do for him.

The family is understandably ebullient over Terry's miraculous recovery. Terry awoke unexpectedly when his mother entered the room and asked the question she'd become accustomed to asking on her daily visits, "Who’s here? Who is it who came to visit you today?"  To her amazement, this time he answered. His first words were soon followed with a torrent as he struggled to get a grasp on the changes that had taken place. Terry's language skills recovered slowly at first, a few words at a time, but now, according to his family he talks almost full time and has given interviews with reporters from around the world.  His reunion with his family also included meeting his 19 year old daughter Amber, who was born just before the accident. For the first time, he was able to tell her, "You're pretty" and "I love you."

One can only imagine the difficult adjustments that lie ahead for Terry, as he adjusts to the world that is suddenly reappeared before him, and, simultaneously grapples with the challenges of his remaining medical problems.  He remains a parapalegic with almost no use of his arms or legs. He is working with a speech therapist and has said that he hopes to work on walking again one day.

The coincidence that the original car wreck and Terry's awakening both occurred on Friday the 13th is an anomaly within a miracle.

Update, January 2004

It has now been almost six months since Terry Wallis unexpectedly woke up from his 20 year coma and began to talk.  His friends and family have rallied around the cause of his physical and psychological rehabilitation and good progress is being made towards Terry's reentry into a world that has changed dramatically around him.  Terry's story dropped quickly from the news but the real struggle to begin his new life has just begun.  Here are a few of the developments since he awoke:

- Terry's language skills continue to improve and he is now able to initiate conversations with his doctors and family members.  According to his father, his personality has also changed a bit.  When he was asked by his female speech therapist, what she could do for him, "He told her, "Make love to me."

- Terry's wife Sandi is still estranged from the family, the result of her lack of faith that Terry would eventually emerge from his persistent vegetative state.  His daughter Amber has taken an active role in Terry's rehabilitation and participates in his daily care.

- The costs of Terry's care have been an enormous burden to his family, but relief may be on the way in the form of a movie deal.  Scott Bakula Productions has agreed to a six-figure contract for the movie rights to Terry's story.  Bakula is pitching the story to television networks in the hope of producing a show in time for the first anniversary of Terry's awakening. Rumor has it that the ubiquitous Ben Affleck will be cast as Terry and Jennifer Lopez will play Terry's estranged wife Sandi.  

- The Wallis family has established a fund for those wishing to contribute to Terry's care.  Details can be found at www.TerryWallisFund.org

- The controversy surrounding the Terri Schiavo case in Florida has reawaken some interest in Terry Wallis.  Terry's family heard about the Schiavo case and contacted Schiavo's family to offer support.  Schiavo, also 39 years old, has been in a coma since 1990.  Her husband has requested that her life support systems be withdrawn, allowing her to die, but her family and other supporters, including the Governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, have fought the move.

- The Terry Wallis and Terri Schiavo cases are both in the spotlight of the difficult moral and ethical questions surrounding "personhood theory. Under this theory, people who are diagnosed with permanent loss of consciousness and the ability to think and communicate with others are defined as "nonpersons."  These "human nonpersons" are theorized to have lesser rights and value than full and equal members of the human community. Other nonperson classes include embryos, fetuses, those with severe mental disabilities or advanced Alzheimer's disease.    

2006 Update

Terry Wallis plans to spend the Fourth of July 2006 listening to country western music and watching fireworks at his brother's house in Harriet, Arkansas. The miracle of his recovery has continued to impress and confound his doctors and delight his family.

Since his re-awakening in 2003, Mr. Wallis' speech and memory have continued to improve, providing scientists with an opportunity for new insights into neurology and cognitive processes. A recent research paper published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation uses advanced brain scanning techniques to explore the progress of Mr. Wallis' recovery and concludes that his brain is forming new neural connections. This is contrary to the accepted medical belief that few if any neurons regenerate after severe brain trauma.

These findings could have important implications for the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Americans currently in states of partial or minimal consciousness. Mr. Wallis' case is also often referenced in discussions of the case of Terri Schiavo, a Floridian who was removed from life support last year after years in a persistent vegetative state. Ms. Schiavo's injuries were significantly more profound than Mr. Wallis'.

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Sources

ABC News report: http://abcnews.go.com/wire/Living/ap20030710_40.html

CNN interview with Terry Wallis: http://us.cnn.com/2003/US/South/07/07/mute.no.more/ 

Terri Schiavo Support Page: http://www.terrisfight.org/

An overview of Personhood Theory: http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/smith200312050930.asp

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