Awake for only 12 days this century – ‘miracle’ of coma woman
Richard Luscombe in Miami
Friday March 9, 2007
Every day for more than six years, Minnie Smith greeted her daughter with the same question, and every day it went unanswered. Plunged into a mysterious coma-like vegetative state by a heart attack and stroke, Christa Lilly had slipped into silence in November 2000 and had barely communicated since.
But on Sunday, Mrs Smith, 73, breezed into her daughter’s room to kiss her good morning. “Hey babe, how you doing today?” she asked as usual, stroking the 49-year-old woman’s hair.
“Fine” Ms Lilly replied, as if nothing had happened.
She believed it was 1986 and, in further confusion, that George Bush Sr was in charge of the White House. Told that she had been “asleep” for years, she asked: “I have? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
It was the start of a remarkable “awakening” that medical experts cannot explain. For three days, Ms Lilly was alert, mobile and lucid. She talked, ate, cracked jokes and hugged her four daughters and the three grandchildren she had not met before. But after the three days she lapsed back into the mysterious state she had previously been trapped in.
During her three days awake she also gave an interview to a local television station in Colorado. She spoke of her joy at being able to eat cake and hug her youngest daughter, 12-year-old Chelcey. She said: “I think it’s wonderful, it makes me so happy.”
Her doctors say she is in a vegetative state but that it is not persistent and that she is not in a coma. They describe her condition as “minimally conscious”. Her eyes are open, but they focus on the ceiling all day and her body is rigid. She cannot walk or communicate, has no awareness and has to be fed through a tube into her stomach.
It is the fifth time that Ms Lilly has enjoyed a period of apparent consciousness since her brain was injured by the heart attack and stroke, though all have been brief. She has been “awake” for only 12 days this century.
Dr Randall Bjork, one of her neurologists in Colorado Springs, told the Denver Post: “There’s really no reference point in our medical literature … Christa’s brain is on the ropes, so to muster enough energy to have three days of conversation she has to be in relative hibernation for months.”
He added: “This is a miracle. This is all mystical and I can’t explain it. We don’t have a name for this, but I call it ‘cyclical awakenings’ “
Similar cases have confounded doctors in the past. Among them was the bizarre story of Annie Shapiro, a 50-year-old Canadian woman who fell into a coma after suffering a stroke in 1963. She awoke 30 years later and had difficulty coming to terms with the fact that she was now a 79-year-old grandmother, that man had landed on the Moon and the cordless telephone had been invented.
Other cases include that of Donald Herbert, a New York fireman who was left in a semi-vegetative state for a decade after being injured in a burning building, but then woke up and chatted with his family for 14 hours in April 2005 before relapsing. He died last year, aged 44.
A report last year by Cambridge University researchers showed that patients who are apparently unconscious often have more brain function than previously suspected. The study showed that the brains of comatose patients responded to verbal stimuli in a similar manner to those of conscious volunteers. The team admitted it was “absolutely stunned” by the findings.
Mrs Smith said yesterday that she and her family had enjoyed Ms Lilly’s latest rebound as if it were Christmas. “The good Lord lets me know she’s all right. He brings her back to visit me every so often and I’m thankful for that.
“Hopefully the next time she comes out it’ll be for good, to stay. I hope that this time next year she’ll be walking and talking. I never gave up on my daughter and I never will.”