In 1984, 19-year-old Terry Wallis was thrown from his pick-up truck during an accident near his home in Massachusetts, US. He was found 24 hours later in a coma with massive brain injuries.
Within a few weeks he had stabilised in a minimally conscious state, which his doctors thought would last indefinitely. It did indeed persist for 19 years. Then, in 2003, he started to speak.
Over a three day period, Wallis regained the ability to move and communicate, and started getting to know his now 20 year old daughter – a difficult process considering he believed himself to be 19, and that Ronald Reagan was still president.
Wallis's brain has apparently developed new neural pathways and even novel anatomical structures, which eventually allowed him to regain consciousness. It's an incredible story -- I don't know whether it makes our world more of a science-fiction movie or more of a daytime soap opera, but it's great.
Incidentally, Pure Pedantry at scienceblogs.com explains
the difference between Terry Wallis's condition and Terry Schiavo's condition, as the Schiavo lunacy was the first thing that popped into my mind, too.
The key difference, as summarized in a quote from an article about the Terry Schiavo case, is "the difference...between autonomic activity and episodic conscious activity," said Fins.
To emphasize the point, there is a huge area of difference between someone who has essentially only the housekeeping functions in the brain and someone who -- for reasons metabolic or traumatic -- comes in and out of consciousness intermittently. It is very unfortunate that Terry Wallis was misdiagnosed in this case, because the prognosis for individuals with minimally conscious state -- while not fabulous -- is much better than for a persistent vegetative state. I just thought I would get the distinction out of the way early lest people go into a flurry of speculation about how all people in comas now have the possibility of recovery. Terry Wallis had a possibility of recovery because he had a condition that allowed for recovery. Terry Schiavo did not.
, where the comments reveal a bit anticlimactically that the story is over three years old.The comments at MetaFiter also reveal that the man's recovery isn't going especially well; like Leornard and HM and Oliver Sack's Korsikoff's sufferer, he is no longer able to retain new memories. MetaFilter ruins everything.
Also I sort of linked to this story over a year ago. Maybe I'm the one who can't make new memories...