Personal Column: Out cold

'Life on Mars' fans are gripped by coma-trapped Sam's plight. Sarah Donohue, who nearly died in a powerboat accident, knows what he is going through
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I had been racing powerboats for six years. It is considered one of the most dangerous motorsports - man against the elements, not like putting a car with a roll-cage on a track. If you do it, you understand you will eventually take a knock. I'd broken my nose twice, had a compressed spine and bad bruising but that was all. I was brought up with six boys. My mum and dad taught me to be a fighter and mentally I am very, very strong.

It was Sunday 19 September 1999, the European Championship. I was racing for an Italian team. We were in contention for second place so we were pushing it as hard as we could, and we pushed it a little too hard. We were approaching a turn and we hit the wash of another boat. I was sat over the right sponson, which went into the water at about 80mph, like hitting a brick wall.

In a car you can correct a bit of oversteer. In a powerboat, once it starts to go, there is nothing that you can do but wait. My side disappeared into the water and the boat barrel-rolled back over front.

I felt the water hit me at such a rate I thought it was ripping my head off. Everything went very cold and very dark. You can't think but you just know that you're gone, your time is finished. My crash helmet ripped off - if it hadn't my neck would have broken, so I was really fortunate, it was just my face that got smashed in. I went under and I was drowning.

All I remember is this high- pitched whistle that seemed to go on forever, almost like a dog whistle, so high-pitched you almost can't hear it. I was there for four minutes.

Two race boats stopped. There were five guys taking turns, holding their breath, going underneath, trying to pull me out. They couldn't do it. My lifejacket was trapping me. So they all stood on the back end of one of the sponsons and turned the boat back over.

I had no pulse and no heartbeat. Apparently, I was bleeding from everywhere. Giuseppe, a medic, wiped the blood clear of my mouth and gave me mouth to mouth. One of the Italians was screaming, "She's dead, leave her". You can imagine the panic. But Giuseppe started to give me chest compressions. And then there was a flicker and I started to breathe.

Everything was light, bright white. I couldn't move and I couldn't breathe. I wanted to tell them I couldn't breathe but I couldn't because I couldn't move. I was slipping in and out of awareness.

There were lots of bright lights, blinding lights. And that weird high-pitched noise. I wasn't frightened, in fact I have never been so relaxed. I didn't know anything. You are on a different level. I was going through the most violent experience in the world, but it felt like the most gentle, calm, quiet experience.

I remember one thing. In the helicopter, I felt something really cold go from my neck down to my stomach. I realised they were cutting my race overalls off with cold scissors, and I remember thinking, "Oh, I've got a La Perla bra on and it's really expensive and they're going to cut it off." And then they lost me again.

At the hospital, they put me in what they call the reanimation room. They were trying to make me respond to things. I knew what was going on, I could hear them, everything. I remember panic, mayhem, and I think that must have been when I flat-lined again, which is amazing because, if so, my heart must have stopped but my brain was still functioning. All your functions don't shut off at once, there are still things ticking away. Doctors would probably say bullshit but unless you've been in that situation you wouldn't know.

When you are in a coma you can't move, you can't talk and you can't squeeze someone's hand, but you can hear everything that's going on. You are fully aware of people panicking, every beep. Everything is 10 times as loud as it would be, everything echoes. You're not virtually dead and a vegetable. That's not how it works.

One of the sounds that stays with me is singing. Afterward, I discovered that a doctor had come in and out and rubbed my feet because feet are sensitive, and he sang to me in Italian. I think that was important.

For 24 hours there was no flicker of life, except when they let my mum in. As soon as I heard her voice I opened my eyes and looked at her, just for a moment, then I closed them again.

I didn't see anything for another 24 hours until I opened my eyes again. It's blurred but you can see. The most annoying thing was that they couldn't see that I was seeing them.

It's a horrible thing. You want someone to catch you looking, to say, "Look, she's got her eyes open!" But they're too busy monitoring things. Some people have comas with their eyes open, some with them shut. It wasn't that I was coming out of the coma, it's all part of it.

You're not with it. You've got so much morphine in you. It's like being in a cartoon and you're watching the people at home, you can't get out of it. I was mellow still; it was the most relaxed, warm state I'd ever been in, like I was a little baby wrapped in cotton wool and nothing could harm me. There's no understanding. I didn't know that I'd crashed, that I was in pieces with virtually every bone broken.

I wanted someone to put their hand on my head and stroke me and say hello. Not, "Are you all right?" because, remember, my head isn't telling me I'm in a hospital. I don't understand why I'm there, why all these people are all around.

I think my brain capacity was so busy trying to fix me that part of my brain was shut off. I don't think your mind allows you to think about the dangers you're in. I think it's a very clever part of the human body. I think if your brain knew, your chances of survival would be less.

My mum brought me out of it. I managed to squeeze her finger a little. I tried to speak but bearing in mind that my jaw was broken in two places and I'd got no teeth ... She says I was trying to tell her that she needed to call people for me, that I was running late for appointments and I'd be there. I couldn't string a sentence together for a long time. I'd forget what a word was half way through and stare into space. I didn't understand things. They told her I didn't have brain damage, that it would just take time.

My overriding memory is of being able to see them but they couldn't see me. It was as if I didn't exist, as if I was a ghost in the room. I remember thinking, "Why don't you acknowledge me, why don't you do anything?" You can't move anything, nothing. Not a single bit of you works. There's no blinking, you just stare, for hours and hours.

Sarah Donohue was talking to Elizabeth Heathcote