Friday, December 4, 2015

SfMCR*: After the Awakening

This is the only photo taken of me at All Saints Healthcare. It was snapped on the day of my transfer, five days before my awakening.
I awoke from a dream of man-eating office machinery right out of the Twilight Zone, only to learn that I had actually been re-enacting Sleeping Beauty. I've told the story of the first moments after my awakening before, but the rest of the day was almost as surreal.

A female doctor walked in to evaluate the state of my cognition. Since I couldn't talk, all she could do was give me a multiple choice quiz. Which of these is the current president: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or Barack Obama? This was my first inkling that brain damage was still suspected. I shook my head on the first two and nodded on the last. I made a mental note to make sure everyone could tell that I was completely there.

My mom had explained that my doctors had written me off as a basket case. "The nurses hinting that I should let them pull the plug," she added in her typical blunt manner. She also stated that I had been a quadriplegic. Though I could barely lift my arms and legs, I did have a slight amount of movement. This didn't make any sense to me. My spinal cord had obviously not been damaged. How could this be? This statement only added to my perplexity. [She still says this. I think she bases her conclusion on my lack of movement during my coma. As a hyperactive person, I had always fidgeted and moved while awake. Though I was covertly aware during my coma, I wasn't fully awake. If I had been conscious, but paralyzed, I would've been in a lock-in state, not vegetative.] 

Though I was sure I had no signs of brain damage, confusion reigned as I tried to make sense of the mish mash of the details that trickled out about my illness.

Soon, a priest appeared and told me, "God is good," as I've written about before. My mom, who is also an atheist, was trying to be polite when she allowed him to come to my side. I, in turn, acquiesced with a slight nod of my head when he as asked me if he could pray for me. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Thankfully, he soon left.

My mother was obviously excited at my awakening, but sometimes she talks so much that details can get buried in the mix. This only added to my confusion. I was already getting an inkling of what my loved ones had gone through, however. My mom told me there had been a constant vigil by my side, a fact which a nurse confirmed. Keith would be coming by after work, my mom informed me. I couldn't wait for him to get there. I knew he would be happy.

When Keith arrived, I could hear the joy and relief in his voice. I only wish I could've seen his expression; I'm extremely nearsighted and I didn't have my contacts or glasses. A vegetable has no need for corrective lenses. Keith vowed to bring my glasses to me the next day. Though I couldn't see fine details, I could make out the breadth of his smile.

He told me that all my friends on Friends of the Mountain Dulcimer were rooting for me, and there was a separate cheering section on Facebook. "I can't wait to tell everyone you're back. Completely back." The relief in his voice was obvious.

Meanwhile, I mugged like a silent movie actor, trying to seem as vibrant and aware as possible. I did my best to display my sense of humor, through exaggerated facial expressions, comically timed looks, and a few mouthed words, which were often misunderstood. I wanted everyone to know that I was still completely me. Given my limited comic palette, I was at a considerable disadvantage in this endeavor. My humor is usually verbal.

As I continued to overemphasize my thereness, I stayed so animated that I quickly became exhausted. Yet I kept it up, anyway. I had to make sure everyone knew my mind was undamaged. Keith clearly couldn't get over the fact that my mind was still clearly intact. He had heard all the same discouraging things from my doctors.

And all the time, I struggled to piece together the picture of what had happened. Had I been in a coma six months or six weeks? [I think the confusion stemmed from my mother rounding up to two months, while Keith referred to it as the more precise six weeks. My mind conflated the two.] Why were objects labeled as belonging to "All Saints," when I had spent my coma in the Kaiser Panorama City hospital? No one thought to inform me (because they already knew) that I had been transferred to a nursing home only five days before my awakening. [As I've referred to repeatedly, it was the very activity involved with that move which sparked my awakening.]

Eventually, Keith had to go home and scarf down a quick dinner, then catch a few hours sleep...as he'd been doing for the previous six weeks.

I felt all but dead, wrung out by my forced activity in my coma-weakened state. But I awoke the next morning. And the next morning. And the following morning as well.




*SfMCR stands for Scenes from My Coma Recovery. This post is part of a continuing series of vignettes from my recovery.

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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.

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.