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End of Life Care: Miracles

A non-comprehensive compendium of cases of patients who have awakened and/or improved following a diagnosis of persistent vegetative state, irreversible coma or death

Prepared with the asssitance of Julie Grimstad

Peter Sana

A Hawaii man who spent seven years in a coma regained consciousness in September, 2002. Peter Sana slipped into the coma after contacting meningitis. He spent most of those seven years in a nursing home, unresponsive to all contact. But during the summer of 2002, he began to respond to commands from the nursing staff. Throughout the seven years, Sana’s father visited every day. The nursing home staff believes those daily visits played a large part in Sana’s eventual recovery.

Ryan Atencio

A 9-year-old boy was taken off life-support systems (only a feeding tube was left in place) after receiving a massive head injury in a December 10, 1988 car accident. “There was no brain function,” said Dr. Eustaquio Abay at St. Francis Regional Medical Center in Witchita, Kansas. “Three or four times we’d seen the pulse go down to zero — no circulation at all to the brain for 30 minutes on end.” Yet, on January 19, 1989, Ryan squeezed his mother’s hand and opened his eyes. [“Boy who was ‘gone’ opens his eyes and squeezes mom’s hand”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer (United Press International Report), 1/26/89, p. A3.]

Mitchell Berman

A 9-year-old, comatose for 5 months due to hemalytic-uremic syndrome, was not expected to survive. On May 31, 1991, Mitchell spoke his first I words since he went into a coma December 31, 1990. “1 want a hot dog,” he told his mother. Since then, his progress has been phenomenal, said Dr. Geof McPhee, director of pediatrics at New Medico Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center of the Gulf Coast in Slidell, Louisiana. “If he does have residual deficits, I don’t think it’s gonna slow this kid down,” said Dr. McPhee. [“Boy’s complaints welcome after coma,” The (FargoMoorhead) Forum (AP Report), 6/9/91, p. A17.]

Yolanda Blake

A 53-year-old New Jersey woman woke from a coma on December 15, 1990, just one day after a judge ruled that the hospital need not follow the request of the woman’s friend and her sister that she be given life-support measures, including the insertion of a naso-gastric feeding tube. Yolanda, Who had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 1987, suffered severe blood loss for unknown reasons and collapsed on November 30, 1990 while vacationing. She was taken to Pocono Medical Center in East Stroudsburg, PA. Contending that Yolanda had told them not to use any .. extraordinary measures” to keep her alive, doctors at the medical center did not insert either a feeding tube or a urinary catheter. When her friend, Richard Harley, protested the lack of treatment, the hospital took the case to court. A Monroe County judge ruled in favor of the hospital, saying that Yolanda should be allowed to “die with dignity.” When she awoke, Yolanda was asked if she wanted to live. “Of course I do,” she replied. She also insisted on “the best possible” care and a transfer to another hospital that would provide it. [“Woman Denied Food Awakes From Coma”, Liz Townsend, National Right to Life News, 1/8/91, pp. 1 and 24.]

Mary Kay Blakely

In 1984, Blakely, national essayist and “Ms” magazine editor, lapsed into a 9-day diabetic coma. She then published a book — Wake Me When It’s Over — about the extraordinary experience that “saved and transformed my life.” Blakely described her-comatose body as like a broken transmitter: she could receive, but not send any messages. She experienced sound and touch, but could not respond. The coma altered her view of what’s important — and what’s not. She now understands the critical need to slow down, and enjoy some of life’s pleasures. [“Author recounts nine-day coma that ‘transformed my life”, Leslie Walters, Minnesota Women’s Press, 7/16-29/ 89, p. 9.] (Note: This item may not appear to belong with this list of cases, but it points out that people in coma may have experiences we can know nothing about because they do not respond to outside stimuli. Furthermore, at least one state (Colorado) has a dangerous “living will” law that allows life-sustaining measures, including tube-feeding and intravenous fluids, to be discontinued from patients who have been in a coma for as short a time as seven days.)

Barbara Blodgett

A 24-year-old Yakima, Washington woman had been in a coma for more than five months before giving birth to a healthy, 8-pound boy by Caesarian section. Barbara was injured in a June 30, 1988 car accident when she was three months pregnant. After the birth, a hospital spokesman said, “Her prognosis for recovery [from brain stem injuries] is very guarded.” [“Rare procedure helps comatose woman deliver healthy baby”, The Billings (MT) Gazette (AP Report), 12/11/88, p. A4.] Nevertheless, “Barbie” began emerging from the coma on December 10, a day after her son Simon was born. Doctors aren’t certain why she regained consciousness, but speculate it may have been hormonal changes after the birth. On February 14, 1989, USA Today reported this message from Barbara Blodgett, spelled out by pointing to letters written on a piece of paper: “Never give up.” (See case of Nancy Klein for more details.)

Patti White Bull

After sixteen years spent in a coma [persistent vegetative state] Bull, age 42, awoke on Christmas day, December 25, 1999. The case has been described as “absolutely extraordinary.” Bull slipped into a coma during the birth of her youngest child, and for the past ten years had been kept in a Boston-area nursing home and required “total care.” Specialists comment that most patients spend only two to four weeks in a true coma. Bull required intensive speech and physical therapy and, contrary to expert opinion, is not severely cognitively impaired. (“Extraordinary awakening,” ABCNews.com, 1/4/2000)

Curt Coleman Clark

Doctors were about to remove the organs of a 22-year-old North Carolina man they thought had been killed in a traffic accident when his foot twitched. Curt was pronounced “brain dead” and his family agreed to donate his organs. But, after his foot moved, he was taken to the intensive care unit of Baptist Hospital in WinstonSalem where more signs of life were detected. (“Surprise for doctors – organ donor still alive”, Orlando Sentinel, 9/29/90.)

Jacqueline Cole

A 44-year-old Maryland woman lapsed into a coma when a blood vessel burst in her brain. Only a respirator and tubes kept her alive. The doctors diagnosed her as being in a “persistent vegetative state” and said her chance of recovery was perhaps one in a million. Weeks passed and, finally, her family petitioned a court for permission to disconnect her life support. Permission was denied because, the judge later explained, “She was not legally brain dead. I was dealing with a live person.” Only 6 days after the judge announced he was withholding his consent, and 6 weeks after she lapsed into the coma, Jackie Cole woke up. On May 15, 1986, a friend came to pay his last respects to Jackie. He took her inert hand and said, “Hello.” To his surprise, she opened her eyes and smiled at him. Since then, Jackie has almost totally recovered, except for long-and short-term memory problems. [“Her Family Was Ready to Pull the Plug — Then Jackie Cole Suddenly Awakened from Her Coma”, David Van Biema, People Magazine, 10/86, pp. 43-44.]

Carrie Coons

When this 86-year-old stroke victim, who had been declared to be in an “irreversible” vegetative state, began talking and eating on her own, a New York state judge had to withdraw his permission for removal of her feeding tube. Mrs. Coons baffled her doctors, her lawyers and her 88-year-old sister, who had sought approval for removal of the feeding tube. Mrs. Coons had not shown any signs of alertness for four and one half months. When she awoke, her doctor described her legal case to her and asked what she would wish to be done. She replied, “These are difficult decisions.” She later told her court-appointed attorney that she would “like to wait” on any decision about the feeding tube. Her doctor, Michael L. Wolff, a gerontologist, said he was at a loss to explain what had happened other than to wonder about “the existence of miracles or the resilience of the human spirit.” [“Right-toDie Order Revoked As Patient in Coma Awakes”, Sam Howe Verhovek, The New York Times, 4/13/89, p. B3.]

Tonya Cotton

A Minnesota girl was not expected to survive after she was injured in a car accident when she was 9 years old. She stopped breathing twice and lay in a coma for a month and a half. Her recovery was slow, her shortterm memory was affected, and she had to attend a special education class for the mildly mentally handicapped, but she graduated from high school, in June 1988, with the rest of the seniors, at age 19. [“Coma victim recovers and finishes high school”, The (Fargo-Moorhead) Forum (AP Report), 6/5/89, p. A8.]

Paul Cullinan

A 39-year-old Canadian man who was gunned down over a suspected drug deal and left for dead began to speak after being in a coma for 17 months. Doctors gave him little chance of recovery after he was shot once in the forehead at close range on December 5, 1987. (“Shooting victim out of coma”, The Toronto Star, 7/28/89, p. A8.]

Brent Doyle

An 18-year-old Colorado man who suffered a severe brain injury in a motorcycle crash regained consciousness after 2-month coma. Doctors maintained that Brent’s chances for recovery were poor and his father said, “A lot of doctors had really given up on him.” Days after the accident, his brain showed no activity, but his parents never lost faith. Don Doyle talked to his son incessantly and played a tape-recorded pep talk from Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino two or three times a day. Brent’s mother credits his recovery to the “talk therapy”. [“Man wakes from coma”, Kris Newcomer, Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 4/13/89, pp. 1 and 36.]

Brittany Eichelberger

A 3-year-old Pittsburgh girl who was revived after being found “clinically dead” in a snowdrift was well enough to sit up in her hospital bed and fight with her nurses a few days later. (“Toddler found nearly frozen in snowdrift recovering”, The (Fargo-Moorhead) Forum, 12/28/90, p. 1A.]

Helen Francoeur

A medical examiner pronounced an 82-year-old Massachusetts woman dead at her home. When funeral. home workers arrived to remove her body, they discovered she was alive. An embarrassed Dr. William J. Dean, Hamden County associate medical examiner, said, “There was no pulse. She was cool and there was no heartbeat that we could hear…. It’s the first time this has happened to me in my career as a medical examiner.” [“Holyoke woman revives after being declared dead”, Joe Heaney, The Boston Herald, 4/14/89, p.

Don Hamilton

A 32-year-old Minnesota man accidentally shot himself in the thigh, severing an artery, while deer hunting. Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Park Rapids, MN reported that Don had lost almost all his blood by the time he arrived at the hospital. They recorded no pulse, no blood pressure. They gave him blood in massive transfusions, attempted to mend the wound and ordered a helicopter to take him to North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, MN. Doctors there said that all appearances pointed to brain death. His lungs filled with fluid and tubes were inserted to drain them. A tracheotomy tube and respirator were necessary. His kidneys failed, requiring renal dialysis. And still he slept. Don lay in a coma for 5 weeks, and then, responding to voices of nurses and his parents, he awoke. He recognized his family members, talked intelligently and smiled. Then he cried. “I have never, ever seen a person come back and live from that deep,” said Dr. Bruce Norback, a neurologist. “I’ve thought a long time about how he could have survived it all,” said Dr. Norback. “He received excellent care at the Park Rapids hospital and some marvelous nursing care here. At every stage where something had to be done to save him, it was done aggressively …. I really don’t know for certain how he came back. I don’t think any of us does.” Dr. George Nemanich, Don’s surgeon, said, “…here we are less than two months after he looked brain dead and gone, and he may be able to retain 80 to 90 percent use of his leg. He’ll walk. He may be able to leave the hospital in five or six weeks.” On December 14, 1987, Don regained consciousness, and at Christmas he celebrated with his family. [“All the mysteries of life and death aren’t covered in medical books”, Jim Klobuchar, (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, 12/26/87, p. 1A.] Postscript: “With a limp barely detectable, Don Hamilton walked into a Wayzata photo studio this weekend with the woman he will marry in June.” [“He was well inside death’s door before returning to a new life”, Jim Klobuchar, Star Tribune, 2/26/89, p. 1A.]

Conley Holbrook A 26-year-old man, comatose since he was beaten eight years ago (11/27/82), regained consciousness and gave authorities the names of his alleged attackers. The recovery occurred while Conley was being treated for pneumonia at Lexington Memorial Hospital in High Point, North Carolina. “I was astonished,” his mother said. “I never gave up on him. This is just a miracle. It’s good to have him home talking.” (“Beaten man beats coma, fingers pair of suspects”, Press-Telegram (AP Report), 3/6/91.)

Yung Hsu

A 47-year-old California woman was struck by a truck June 2, 1988, suffered massive head and chest injuries and was in a coma for 2 months before she woke up and spoke her husband’s name to her doctor. [“Woman emerges from 2-month coma”, The Plain Dealer, 8/14/88.]

Fernando Ibarra

A professional boxer, Ibarra awoke two months after a knockout punch caused him to undergo brain surgery in January, 1999. Doctors had predicted that Ibarra might never regain consciousness, and that if he did, his mental abilities would be severely curtailed. However, after his awakening, Ibarra could pedal a stationery bike, walk up and down stairs, talk and write thank you cards and pay visits to Spanish- speaking students. Ibarra had a complete memory of the fight and the accident that caused his brain injury. [“Boxer will continue recovery with Family,” St. Louis Post Dispatch, 3/25/99]

Jennifer Keough

A 15-year-old Florida girl’s parent were asked to donate her organs after a car accident. Two days later, Jennifer scratched out a message: “I want to talk to my mom.” After the car crash, police said she was dead. Jennifer’s eyes were fixed and dilated when she was brought to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, said Dr. Francisco Pons. When he learned of her progress, he said, “That’s a miracle.” [“Parents asked to donate girl’s organs, but she’ll be needing them after all”, The Modesto (CA) Bee (AP Report), 10/19/89, p. A4.]

Nancy Klein

On December 13, 1988, a 32-year-old New York woman suffered severe brain damage in a car accident. She was pregnant. Doctors told her husband that an abortion might improve her chances of recovery. Martin Klein, after a bitter court battle, obtained permission to authorize an abortion for his wife. Following the abortion in February 1989, Nancy was still comatose, but, according to newspaper accounts, had made enough progress to be transferred to a rehabilitation center. (“Comatose woman better after abortion”, Washington Times, 3/10/89, p. B10.] (Comment: There is no proof that the abortion actually caused an improvement in Nancy’s condition. Attempting to save her baby may have been just as beneficial for Nancy, if not moreso. Barbara Blodgett’s father-in-law called Nancy’s mother before the abortion to share what happened to “Barbie”. His concern was “if they got all the information.” Barbara was only 13 weeks pregnant when she became comatose and she carried to term and delivered a healthy baby. Nancy’s baby was aborted at 18 weeks gestation. – “A ‘miracle’ times two”, USA Today, 2/14/89.)

Earl Lanning

In 1978, a then 52-year-old Michigan man suffered a brain hemorrhage and remained in a semi-comatose state for 10 years. In March 1988, he suddenly became “very lucid”, began to speak and remembered much of what happened before he was stricken. Doctors said that steroids changed Earl’s condition: “They have been able to reduce the swelling of his brain But his primary nurse at the Veteran’s Care Facility in Grand Rapids credits a good part of his recovery to a nurse’s aid who “talked to him constantly while caring for him.” (“Earl Lanning revives from ten-year coma”, Penasee Globe, 3/23/88, Vol. 103, No. 27.)

Maria Lydia Hernandez Lopez

In April of 1999 Lopez began suffering from headaches that her doctors blamed on her pregnancy. She slipped into a coma on April 24 after a blood vessel popped in her brain. In May the family agreed to remove her from life support. However, as a priest was giving the last rights, Lopez sputtered, coughed and lurched in her bed. Within two months Lopez had begun regaining consciousness and seven weeks after the ordeal began Lopez was fully awake. Six days later, she delivered twins. [“Woman awakens from coma, gives birth to twins,” Associated Press, 7/8/99, page A07]

Marcello Manunza

Uttering “Mama,” a 25-year-old Italian man came out of a nearly 3-year long coma, moved his limbs and spoke. He responded to tickling and encouragement from his family. Marcello had undergone special physiotherapy under the direction of a Philadelphia professor, Glen Doman, reported the Italian news agency ANSA. He can now eat and understand what is said to him. [“3-year coma ends”, The Orange County Register, 7/20/90.]

Maximo Rene Menendez

A 25-year-old Florida man who drank a cocaine-laced soft drink collapsed into a coma on July 26, 1990. Three weeks later, doctors postponed plans to shut off life support systems when he showed “apparent signs of life.” Maximo had downed a six-ounce bottle of Pony Malta (a Colombian soft drink), unaware that it was poisoned with 1000 times the lethal dose of cocaine. His family had obtained a court order to disconnect his life support system * after neurologists testified he had no brain activity, but when the respirator was shut off, he had a leg spasm and took shallow breaths. [“Victim of Cocaine Drink Shows Slight Sign of Life”, Rutland Daily Herald (AP Report), 7/15/90.)

Dawn Osborn

In 1987, a Washington State teenager suffered a serious head injury in a traffic accident. A 15-year-old single mother, Dawn awoke after 7 weeks in a coma, but had forgotten everything and everybody she had ever known. It took a small army of doctors, nurses and therapists to help her progress to where she could brush her teeth and spell “cat”. Dawn’s parents, William and Mary Osborn of Federal Way, WA, considered it a miracle that she pulled through. Nobody could predict how far Dawn would progress, but by February of 1989 she had learned to talk and walk in spite of the fact that her right side is paralyzed, had returned to school as a special education student and was learning to read and write again. Standardized tests had shown an improvement in her intelligence, from a first-grade level to a seventh-grade level, and her memories were slowly returning. [“Learning to live all over again”, Kathy Hall, Valley Daily News, 2/13/89, pp. A1 and A3.]

Colin Pierce

A Massachusetts man who was in a coma for seven months after a November 1982 car accident when he was only 17 years old, emerged from the coma with only minimal responses, but the family never gave up hope and kept talking to Colin as if he could respond. After 7 years, he finally spoke, telling his mother that he loved her. “It’s so wonderful to think our time (spent talking to him] was not in vain,” said an elated Mrs. Pierce. (“After seven years, son can speak”, The Boston Globe (AP Report), 1/30/90.)

Unnamed Patient

A 45-year-old Wisconsin man who had spent 8 years in a vegetative state awakened after being injected with Valium during a routine dental procedure March 12, 1990. The man has been awakened a number of times since then with injections of Valium. A former airline pilot, the man was injured in a car accident. When medicated, he can remain fully conscious for up to 12 hours at a time and is able to walk and perform complicated math calculations. (“Doctors puzzled by man’s recovery from vegetative state”, The (Fargo-Moorhead) Forum, 3/29/90, p. A17.]

Unnamed Patient

A patient with head trauma who had been comatose for 6 years and residing in a nursing home, began to respond to her environment and subsequently underwent rehabilitation that resulted in significant recovery. Speech and psychological functions that had been severely affected improved considerably after 9 months training. Surgical release of contractures resulted in healing of several decubitus ulcers and allowed the patient to regain some mobility and skills. The patient eventually returned home to live with her family. [“Physical and Surgical Rehabilitation of Patient after 6-Year Coma”, Justina Tanhehco, MD, and Paul E. Kaplan, MD, Arch Phys Med Rehabil, Vol.. 63, 1/82.1 Jane D. Hoyt, Chair of the Nursing Home Action Group in St. Paul, Minnesota, commented: “Coma research must be encouraged. Starving persons who have severe disabilities wrongly prohibits research into cures!”

Quotes from “The Right to Live-and the Right to Die,” Law Guardian (England), 4/7/90
by Keith Andrews
Director of Medical and Research Services Brain Injury Unit
Royal Hospital and Home
Putney London SW15

“Two weeks ago, I came across one man in the U.S. who had been in the vegetative state for four years and is now walking.”

“Probably the most likely possibility is that brain injured people are not being allowed to reach their optimal recovery because they are not offered the opportunity of rehabilitation programme …. The experience on our Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit is that nearly all those patients admitted in PVS are suffering from undernutrition… and have developed deformities which further inhibit recovery.”

“Rehabilitation for these patients has not been tried and found wanting, it is wanted but, too often, not been tried.”