Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Scenes from My Coma Recovery: The Awakening

I’m reading, “Writing Life Stories,” by Bill Roorbach, in preparation for writing my memoir. It’s an excellent book, and as a plus, it also deals with personal essay writing. I’ve already done pretty well on that score, with two essay sales under my belt, but there’s always room for improvement. At any rate, he teaches memoir writing, so he has a bunch of useful writing exercises in the book. One of them is to write vignettes about your past experiences. I could write about my childhood—there’s plenty of material there!—but I’ve decided instead to write about my recovery. These little stories, after all, will undoubtedly wind up in the memoir (although not in the same form), so writing them now will give me a head start. I’m calling this recurring series, “Scenes from My Coma Recovery.”  I thought the logical place to start would be my awakening.
Here I was, finally studying to become a paleontologist, as I had always wanted to do. Of course, when my class gathered to study in the noirish, 30s-era back rooms of the American Museum of Natural History (a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting), I didn’t expect that the vacuums and other machinery scattered about would suddenly spring to life and start attacking everyone. [No one expects the mechanical inquisition.] I had just managed to blockade the room I was hiding in from the rampaging Hoover, when the drill left in that room also went berserk. [Don’t ask me how it moved.]  How would I get out of this dire situation? I never got a chance to find out. Instead, I woke up to another improbable situation.

I opened my eyes and thought, “Goddamnit, I just fell back asleep.” (A recurring theme in my coma-dream was that I was having a miserably restless night’s sleep. Every time I started to drift off, something would wake me up again.)

But this time it was no dream.

“You’ve been in a coma for six weeks,” my mother told me. “You nearly died.”

“Seriously?” I said, or rather tried to say. I was so weak I could barely lift my head.

“Don’t try to speak,” she quickly added. “You won't be able to. You have a tube in your throat to help you breathe.”

It took a few minutes for it all to sink it. How could this be true? I was just sleeping….

Slowly, I pieced together what had happened. The doctors, I soon learned, had told my loved ones that I was profoundly brain damaged. I spent the rest of the day emphatically shaking and nodding my head at every comment and question, trying to make sure everyone knew I was fully awake and still me.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine

In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.

I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.

But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.