Falling into a coma is usually seen as a death sentence by most people, especially if it lasts longer than a few days. Though the victim’s loved ones are praying for a happy ending, the sad fact is that the longer the person stays ‘asleep’, the greater the damage becomes to their brain. In these situations families are basically told to prepare for the worst, and to say their last goodbyes.
However, there have been rare cases when those whom doctors believed would never recover have suddenly and miraculously woken up — much to the amazement of the medical community. These shocking stories show the incredible resilience of the human body, and in some cases the awakenings are simply unexplainable. As you’d expect when someone ‘wakes up’ after years in a comatose state, the outcomes are often bittersweet. Regaining your consciousness to discover the world around you has changed – along with your own physical appearance – must be a huge shock to the system. Can you imagine waking up after 30 years to find you’re now a grey-haired grandmother? Keep reading to find out exactly what that’s like….
15. Sarah Thomson – 10 Days
Sarah Thomson, 32, was in a coma for ten days after a blood clot in her brain burst in 2012. Though it’s the shortest length of time on our list, it’s definitely an incredible story owing to the fact that when she woke up Sarah had no recollection of the last 13 years, and felt like she was still a teenager. She believed the Spice Girls were still together and was very shocked to hear that Michael Jackson had died.
When she saw her husband Chris, after waking up, she assumed he was a hospital worker, and had to fall in love with him all over again. “He’s been amazing really, helping me get myself together.” She said. “I feel a bit like a teenager at the moment, I dye my hair all different colors and can get really moody at times, so he’s certainly had to get used to the new me.
She also failed to recognize her children — “When the children came to see me I just had no idea who they were, I thought they were somebody else’s children,” she said. “I kept calling them the wrong names, and had no idea why they were so pleased to see me. Eventually I asked if they were mine, and when I was told I couldn’t believe it.”
14. Evel Knievel – 29 Days
Stuntman Robert Craig Knievel, aka Evel Knievel, was attempting to jump over the fountains of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on his motorcycle when disaster struck on December 31st, 1967. The stunt went horribly wrong; he lost control of the bike and ended up crashing into the Dunes parking lot. As a result of the accident he was left with a broken pelvis and ribs and a fractured skull — and was in a coma for 29 days.
Amazingly, Knievel made a full recovery after ‘waking’ from his comatose state, and there was good news to follow; the crash had catapulted him to celebrity status. The jump had been filmed in order to produce a movie of the world record attempt, and with his new found fame he was able to sell the rights to ABC-TV for much more than he originally expected. Proof that every cloud may just have a silver lining after all!
13. Joey Hopkins – 41 Days
Joey Hopkins from Portsmouth, UK, was 22 years old when he suffered a brain injury as well as a broken neck and back, after a car accident in 2004. His mother Joanne waited patiently by his hospital bed every day in the hope that he would wake up, and finally, after 41 long days, an apparent miracle happened.
However, it wasn’t exactly the type of touching moment you might expect from someone waking up from a coma — instead Joey uttered a curse word at his mom….
“He had been trying to speak but hadn’t managed to get any words out,” she said. “I said to the nurse, ‘I’ll know when he’s getting better because he’ll swear at me and at that moment he told me to ‘f*** off’.” Joanne wasn’t offended though, far from it. She said she ‘cried with relief’ at the exchange, and added, “It was his way of telling me he was going to be OK.”
12. Fred Hersch – 2 Months
Accomplished jazz musician Fred Hersch has been open about his HIV positive status since the mid-1990s, and has been a strong voice in rallying other musicians in the fight against AIDS. It was due to the illness that he fell into a deep coma in the summer of 2008, after a case of pneumonia put him into septic shock. As with many patients in severe comas, doctors didn’t expect him to regain consciousness, so when he awoke 2 months later it was a wonderful surprise.
However, he was left severely weakened by the ordeal, and had to be fed through a tube for another eight months, and was also unable to speak or walk. After ten months in bed Fred was finally able to leave hospital, although it took months for him to be able to play the piano again. Incredibly, when he did, he already had a 90-minute concert “My Coma Dreams” ready to go, based on his memories from his coma. Experts say that people do dream in comas, but these kinds of dreams are very difficult to describe with words.
11. Matt Davis – 3 Months
22-year-old Matt Davis fell into a coma in 2010 after being involved in a severe crash while riding his motorcycle. Nine days after the accident, his new wife Danielle was given the devastating news that he had just a 10 percent chance of ever waking up. They advised her to remove him from life support, but she refused.
“I wanted to give him more time to see if he improved.” She said. “We didn’t really have a chance to start our life together, I wasn’t going to give up.”
Three months later, there had been no signs of Matt ever recovering. Therefore doctors granted permission for Danielle and her mom to care for him at home, dressing, bathing and changing him every day and feeding him through a tube. He also had to be given a daily cocktail of 20 different medicines. Then something incredible happened; when Danielle put Matt’s hat in his hand one day and asked him to put it on his head he replied “I’m trying!”. Since then, he has made an amazing recovery, and is now even able to go to yoga classes.
10. Jarrett Carland – 4 Months
Jarrett Carland was just 17 years old when he was in a car crash that killed his best friend and left him in a coma on August 16th, 2009. The days stretched into weeks, and then months, and doctors said there was a strong chance he would never recover.
“They didn’t expect him to live, and if he did, they didn’t expect him to ever come out of a coma. They figured he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life,” said Jarrett’s mom, Elana.
As part of his therapy, Jarrett was given music to listen to. For most patients this was gentle, classical music, but Jarrett’s parents insisted on playing country music from Charlie Daniels. It was during his favorite song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that he suddenly awoke from his coma after four long months. Six months later he got to meet his hero in the flesh at the Riverbend Music Festival in Chattanooga.
9. Ayanda Nqinana – 7 Years
Ayanda Nqinana was left with severe brain damage after a severe car crash in South Africa in 2005. Doctors told his friends and family that it was unlikely he’d ever recover, and his wife Nomfundo, said of her husband’s condition: “His eyes, he couldn’t follow any direction. For instance, if you were talking to him, even if you move from this angle to that angle, he doesn’t follow you. He couldn’t talk. Not at all.”
However, after Nomfundo read about a drug named Stilnox that had brought several other patients out of comas, she convinced doctors to try it on Ayanda. The effects were amazing; after seven years in a coma, he was awake and talking a few days after being given the drug. Doctors aren’t exactly sure why the pill works, and remain cautious when prescribing it as it could have potentially dangerous side effects. Also, as its effects often subside within a couple of hours, some patients are forced to take multiple doses throughout the day.
8. Martin Pistorius – 7 Years
When he was just 12 years old, Martin Pistorius found his body suddenly starting to shut down. He eventually slipped into a coma, with doctors informing his parents that he had simply become “a vegetable” who was no longer capable of thought, and that they should not expect him to ever recover, but just wait for him to die.
However, three years later he miraculously began to regain consciousness until he was finally fully conscious by age 19. He was still completely paralyzed though, with the exception of his eyes. It wasn’t until he was 25 that his caregivers noticed he was able to react to statements, and after doctors at a specialist center at the University of Pretoria confirmed this he was given a speech computer to communicate. His condition has slowly improved since then, and he now also has some control over his head and arms.
7. Gary Dockery – 8 Years
Gary Dockery was a police officer from Walden, Tennessee who fell into a coma on September 17, 1988 after being shot in the head by a drunk man while responding to a call. For the next seven and a half years he remained in a vegetative state in a nursing home, with his friends and family not expecting him to ever fully recover.
However, after Gary underwent lung surgery at the beginning of 1996, he suddenly woke up and was able to talk. His family and friends said that he was able to remember the names of relatives and even those of his horses and the color of his car. Doctors were not able to explain exactly how Gary had woken up, but unfortunately it didn’t last very long. 18 hours after his amazing awakening, he started to slip back into unresponsiveness, and sadly died a few months later.
6. Donald Herbert – 10 Years
44-year-old fireman Donald Herbert fell into a coma after an accident at work; when responding to a fire in 1995 he had become buried under debris from the building and left without air as a result. His doctor Dr Jamil Ahmed, had remained dedicated to his recovery, even though other experts agreed it was a hopeless case. He put Donald on a new drug with the aim of improving his brain functions, and the results were amazing.
Ten years after he had fallen into the coma, Donald woke up and was able to converse with his delighted friends and family. Dr. Ahmed was especially stunned by the recovery; the last time he had seen him he was drooling and unresponsive, now he was reminiscing and laughing with his family. He was shocked to discover how long he had “been away” though — he woke up believing only three months had passed, definitely not a decade…
5. Christa Lilly – 17 Years
One case that has baffled doctors is 59-year-old Christa Lilly, who fell into a coma in November 2000, following a heart attack and stroke. Since then, she has stunned family and medical staff alike by waking up five times – if only for a few days. In one example she awoke in 2007 for a total of three days, in which time she talked, ate, joked around and even gave a TV interview, before finally falling back into the coma.
In total Christa has only been awake for 12 days since 2000, and on one occasion she woke up believing it was 1986 and that George Bush Sr. was the president. When her family explained that she had been ‘asleep’ for six years she simply replied: “I have? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
Neurologist Dr Randall Bjork told The Denver Post: “There’s really no reference point in our medical literature… Christa’s brain is on the ropes, so to muster enough energy to have three days of conversation she has to be in relative hibernation for months. This is a miracle. This is all mystical and I can’t explain it. We don’t have a name for this, but I call it ‘cyclical awakenings'”.
4. Terry Wallis – 19 Years
Terry Wallis was 20 years old when he was in a horrific car crash in Stone County, Arkansas, on July 13, 1984. The accident claimed the life of one of his friends and left him in a quadriplegic state, being cared for in a nursing home. After a year the coma stabilized and Terry was in a minimally conscious state — one that doctors believed he would never wake up from.
Fast forward to 2003, when 19 years after the accident Terry suddenly awoke. Everyone was stunned when the nurse asked him if he knew who the woman at his bedside was and he simply replied “mama”. He had lost the ability to store new memories while in the minimally conscious state, and therefore woke up believing he was still 20 years old. He also came face to face with his now-teenage daughter, who was just six weeks old when he slipped into the coma.
3. Jan Grzebski – 19 Years
Jan Grzebski, a railway worker from Poland, fell into a coma in 1988 (he was 65). Although it was immediately reported to be the delayed result of a train carriage knocking his head, it was actually a brain tumor that was the real cause. Doctors gave him just two or three years to live, but he stunned them by outliving their expectations despite his vegetable-like condition.
His wife Gertruda, said of those years, “I cried a lot, and I prayed a lot. Those who came to see us kept asking: ‘When is he going to die?’ But he’s not dead.”
Amazingly, after 19 years, Jan woke up in 2007, to a completely different world. He said in a Polish television interview:
“Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin. What amazes me today is all these people who walk around with their mobile phones and never stop moaning. I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
2. Sarah Scantlin – 20 Years
Sarah Scantlin was plunged into a coma in September 1984, after being knocked down by a drunk driver while crossing the street. The accident caused a severe brain injury and meant that she wasn’t able to breathe on her own. However, there was light at the end of the tunnel — twenty years later, she amazed doctors when she woke up and started talking, albeit with limited speech.
Her stunned father said of the August 2005 miracle: “It was amazing. I’m in the living room. Betsy was in the computer area, and the phone rings… and suddenly, I’m aware that there’s a profound, distinct difference. Rather than speaking about Sarah, it became very clear she [Sarah’s nurse] was speaking to Sarah. It was the most amazing feeling in the world,”
1. Annie Shapiro – 30 Years
One of the most extraordinary cases of someone waking from a coma is that of Annie Shapiro, who on October 14th, 1992, woke up after 30 years. The Canada native slipped into a coma on November 22nd, 1963, aged 50 after a severe stroke, and was cared for by her devoted husband for the next three decades. It was him who was there when she eventually woke up;
“I was lying beside her in the bed,” he said, “when she sat up and said: Turn on the television. I want to see the I Love Lucy show.” It was like a dead person come to life.”
Despite her miraculous recovery, Annie was left depressed by the changes to her now-unrecognizable face and body, now with wrinkles and grey hair. The 79-year-old was also stunned by the changes to the world that she had missed, including cordless telephones, color TV and spaceships.