Life After Waking Up from a Coma

Last fall, the commentator was in a severe car accident that left her in a coma. She shares her story of recovery.

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

All across America, parents are watching their children graduate from high school and gearing up to take them to college in the fall. Last fall, Elisa Turner drove with her husband, Eric, her daughter, Margaret and her son, Grant, from Miami, Florida, to Greencastle, Indiana. Her son was to begin college at DePauw University, but during a heavy rainstorm in Indiana, a Corvette struck the family's minivan and sent them spinning into a tractor-trailer. All of the family members suffered injuries, but Elisa lost consciousness and stayed unconscious. Fifteen days later, Elisa Turner awoke in a shower. This is the story of recovering her life.


It was the water's spray that nudged me back, its warmth on my skin tugging me from the stupor that had robbed me of sensation, of myself, of everything. Though still only half-awake, I realized I was sitting on a chair in a shower, and that my close friend Iliana Garcia was washing my hair. Where was I? Why was Iliana washing my hair? I will never forget the weirdness of waking up this way. Then my dim awareness melted away and I got very sleepy again.

I had no broken bones and no obvious wounds, except a few leg bruises, but my brain had been so badly jolted that the right frontal lobe had hemorrhaged and there was bleeding in a few other places. A doctor likened the trauma to shaken baby syndrome. Sometimes, I'm told, I lay in my hospital bed in Indiana with one unfocused eye open. I remember nothing of this period. If I were to walk into that intensive care unit today, I would not recognize it.

Still, because I didn't have a lot of bleeding or swelling, my prognosis was said to be relatively good. My husband, a family medicine physician, had arranged to have me airlifted back home to Baptist Hospital in Miami. I don't remember much about the grimness that followed. Ten days after the crash, my hospital chart characterized me with what now seems gloomy frankness as `significantly stuporous to comatose.'

At Baptist, instinctively struggling back into the world, I was often agitated, a good sign. As my grogginess started to clear, I actually had to remember who I was. Oh, I'm this person, I remember thinking in a flicker of consciousness. About the time I could swallow pureed meals, I started speech, physical and occupational therapy, but I was too sleepy at first to make much progress. My handwriting resembled a jumble of gray threads. Even the concept `What am I doing here?' was too advanced for me.

Within the peculiar logic of what was now my world, I don't remember being particularly frustrated by how slow and hard everything was. I just found everything puzzling. `Why can't I tie my sneakers?' I thought as the blue laces sifted like straw through my fingers. By the time I was discharged from the hospital, I could read, tie my shoes and write my name.

But my speech was slow, my stiff voice unfamiliar and I couldn't laugh or scream. A glass of water felt heavy. When I tried to apply lipstick, I drew a clownish line of helping lips pink across my cheek. I still need a lot of patience and a lot of sleep. Even now, I have daily bouts of bone-crushing fatigue. I can sense when the gray mushy weariness is coming as if watching thunderstorms sweeping in from the Everglades.

Today, finally, my life is edging back toward the familiar. My doctor tells me most likely I will have full recovery, although it may take two years. Several weekends ago, Eric and I flew to Indianapolis. We rented a car and visited Grant at DePauw. I didn't want to commit a mom's cardinal sin of embarrassing her grown son by crying over him, but it was touching to see him happy and settled. Almost eight months after I had begun the trip to see my son start college, I was so lucky to finish the journey.

CHIDEYA: Elisa Turner is an art critic for The Miami Herald.

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