Geoffrey Lean: I was in a coma but I could hear every word

The way people twitched made me feel my words were going in. I could repeat anecdotes recounted to my 'deaf' ears

Share

It seems the stuff of nightmares. To lie in a hospital bed, unable to speak or move - not even an eyelid. To understand what people say to you, and not be able to respond. Even to hear your fate being discussed, without being able to have your say.

But it can be all too real. It happened to me. And last week research showed that it may also be reality for many patients diagnosed as in vegetative states, sometimes condemned as brain dead and beyond recovery.

The research, published in Science, showed that a 23-year-old woman, so diagnosed after a road accident, responded in the same way as healthy people when asked to imagine walking round her house or playing tennis.

Dr Narender Ramnani, of Royal Holloway University, said it suggested that many similar victims "might be quite capable of decision-making and have a rich and complex internal life".

And one - Kate Bainbridge, now recovering - recalled: "I felt trapped inside my body. I had loads of questions like 'Where am I?', 'Why am I here?', 'What has happened?'. But I could not ask anyone."

I felt the same when I was in a coma after a simple operation went wrong almost 16 years ago. I did not suffer nearly as much as her, or many others. I was out for just a month, received no neurological damage, and was never thought to be in a persistent vegetative state - though my chances of recovery were rated at 1 per cent early on, and went on falling. At one stage my wife, Judy, was told there was no hope.

For much of the time I knew what was going on. I could not see, but I could feel and hear. I knew what was in the news - and, when I awoke, could repeat anecdotes that had been recounted to my apparently deaf ears.

I remember being told what the doctors thought was wrong and consciously setting out to fight it. I once overheard a discussion of how seriously ill I was.

Yet it was more puzzling than scary. This, I think, was partly because the nurses took the trouble to tell me what was happening. They would say that they were going to give me an injection, or take my blood pressure, before I felt the needle going in or the tourniquet tightening.

I could also feel my dear wife's hand in mine, our fingers entwined. I could hear her telling me that the children were all right and that their schools and my office were being supportive. I could not work out what she was doing in the strange world I now inhabited, but her presence was enormously reassuring.

I even consciously planned, in my "unconsciousness", how to make contact with her. Once, when she was giving me a blanket bath, I latched on to the idea that I could say "Thank you" when she finished. But just as she was about to do so, she handed over to a nurse, apologising that she had to get the kids from school!

Twice I knew I was on the cusp of death - a remarkably matter-of-fact, unscary experience. The second time I felt I had a choice, and having decided to live, never - against all logic - doubted I would fully recover.

Visiting some other people in comas, I have felt that they were also alert inside. I could well be wrong, but something in the way they twitched - slightly but visibly - when I spoke to them made me feel my words were going in.

I would never suggest that this applies to all patients in comas, let alone those diagnosed as being in vegetative states.

But ever since I recovered, I have had the uneasy feeling that some people were being denied food and water and allowed to die, knowing what was happening, but unable to communicate. This week's research strengthens my fears. If it leads to doctors becoming more cautious about condemning patients, I, for one, will be relieved.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
Nai or Oxi: whether Greece says Yes or No today its citizens will continue to struggle  

Greece crisis: Referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its lack of genuine legitimacy

Rupert Cornwell
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test