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What It Was Like Recovering From a Medically Induced Coma

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We all know what it looks like when someone comes out of a coma, right? After all, we’ve seen it on screen dozens of times. A patient lies unconscious in a hospital bed, usually intubated. A loved one waits by their bedside, scared, sad, and exhausted. Suddenly the patient’s finger twitches. They slowly open their eyes, and a loved one calls for a nurse. The intubation tube is removed, and there is a moment of suspense. Then the patient quietly speaks. Yay! They’re back! Happy tears and hugs all around. A short time later, the patient is sitting up in bed with a hospital food tray in front of them, chatting with visitors.

If we were to believe what film and television tell us, then emerging from a coma is kind of like waking from a long deep sleep, right? No, not really. Coma is a prolonged state of unconsciousness, where the individual is largely unaware and unresponsive to external stimuli. It can last, on average, for several days to several weeks, and sometimes months or years. It is caused by a variety of issues, including traumatic brain injury, oxygen deprivation, infection, and seizure. A coma can also be medically induced with anesthetic drugs for reasons such as reducing inflammation in the brain, and eliminating pain. Depending on how long the coma lasts and the severity of injury to the brain, emerging from a coma may take days or weeks, and an individual may go through stages of consciousness before they are responsive.

In my case, it was a medically induced coma. One night, while hospitalized with brainstem encephalitis, I had suddenly stopped breathing and went into cardiopulmonary arrest. I was intubated and placed on a ventilator, and as a result, needed to be put into a coma. Long-term intubation carries a number of risks, so it was eventually replaced with a tracheostomy. However, the injury to my brain from the illness meant I had to remain in the coma because tapering the drugs that kept me unconscious resulted in violent seizures.

I was in a coma for six weeks before they could safely taper off the medication and hope I regained full consciousness. This was a terrifying time for my family. I was “awake,” but in an unresponsive vegetative state, and it seemed my body was losing the battle to survive. Doctors were doubtful about my recovery, and the first discussions regarding a Do Not Resuscitate order began.

It was some time after the anesthetic was stopped before I became conscious. I have a vague memory of opening my eyes, confused and disoriented, seeing my mother through double vision, but being unable to speak or move. Memories of that period are fractured, foggy, and sometimes frightening. I was in and out of consciousness, and being awake felt dream-like, often leaving me wondering if what I experienced was real. At some point, my husband put a pen in my hand so I could shakily communicate words and short phrases. My next clear memory, months later, is of having the cuff on my tracheostomy deflated so I could finally speak.

I was very fortunate to eventually regain full consciousness. (Many people do not, or they emerge with impairments in cognitive function and/or verbal ability.) However, I certainly wasn’t sitting up in bed, eating hospital food, and chatting with visitors a few days later. After a brain injury and laying unconscious and unmoving for over six weeks, my muscles had atrophied and tendons had shortened. I did not have the strength or the range of motion to do anything other than lay in bed, dependent on nurses and care aides for all my needs. When I was finally well enough to begin physiotherapy, it took me weeks just to relearn how to sit on the edge of the bed for 30 seconds. My liquid food was delivered directly to my large bowel via a tube. In fact, I didn’t taste hospital food until a year later when my tracheostomy came out.

I never physically fully recovered from the brain injury and subsequent bed confinement, but I feel grateful that I cognitively recovered from the coma. No one ever really knows how well a patient will recover from a coma, or even if they will recover at all. Most times, all we can do is wait and observe. For some fortunate patients, recovering from a coma is indeed similar to waking from a deep sleep. But for many, it is far from simple or smooth. It is an arduous journey through a foggy and tangled landscape, in a damaged vessel weakened by an intense battle of survival. Not like the movies at all.

Getty image by Wavebreak Media.

Originally published: April 7, 2021
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