'I want to talk to my wife': coma victim breaks decade of silence

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The Independent Online

For almost 10 years, following an accident that left him severely brain damaged, Donald Herbert was virtually silent, could barely see, and had no memory of his former life, his wife, or four children. For his family, the point must have come where they never expected to speak with him again.

But the 44-year-old former firefighter, badly injured in a fire in 1995, astounded doctors when on Saturday he suddenly looked up from the nursing home in Buffalo, New York, and told staff: "I want to talk to my wife."

For the next 14 hours, that is all he did do, without sleep, after staff raced to get his wife Linda on the phone, and his family rushed to his side. "How long have I been away?" he asked his family. They told him almost a decade. He thought it had been a couple of months.

Mr Herbert had been fighting a house fire in December 1995 when the roof collapsed and he was buried under debris. He went without oxygen for several minutes and fell into a coma for more than two months.

When he regained consciousness, his speech was halting and slurred, and he did not recognise his family. He would sporadically and infrequently answer "yes" or "no" to a question, but remained mostly silent, wheelchair-bound, and almost blind.

He has undergone therapy for much of the time since, and for the past seven and a half years has been treated at the Catholic-run Father Baker Manor nursing home in Buffalo.

It was there that his family, including his four sons ­ who were 14, 13, 11 and three years old when he was injured, went on Saturday, when staff called them.

As news of his sudden recovery spread, friends and colleagues joined the stream of visitors. "He stayed up till early morning talking with his boys and catching up on what they've been doing over the last several years," Anthony Liberatore, a fellow firefighter, said.

The family were initially reserved as the media clamoured for more information. Mr Herbert's uncle, Simon Manka, issued a statement, saying he was able to recognise relatives by their voices. "He did recognise several family members and friends and did call them by name," Mr Manka said.

Following their 14-hour reacquaintance, Mr Herbert fell into a deep sleep for 30 hours, leaving his family to adjust to what had just happened, and doctors to look for explanations as to what had brought about his sudden reawakening. He has communicated since and has had moments of clarity, but has not returned to the level of communication he was at on Saturday, his wife said yesterday.

Little is known about why people should regain the ability to communicate after so long a period without it. Mr Herbert's case was unusual particularly because of the length of time he remained unresponsive.

Dr Rose Lynn Sherr of New York University Medical Centre said most people recovering from brain injuries do so within two or three years. "It's almost unheard of after 10 years" she said. "But sometimes things do happen and people suddenly improve and we don't understand why."