What it’s like to be in a coma


Whenever I hear the word, I flash back a bit, sometimes for a fleeting moment, sometimes for longer.

Sometimes it’s a mindless lyric in a pop song. Other times, it’s a piece of common yet incongruous phrases, preceded by words like “food” and “sugar.”

Its use doesn’t bother me, because its basic meaning isn’t real to most people. To me, its meaning is fraught with circumstances and realities and days that disappeared. For others, “coma” means a glazed-over feeling, or a general tiredness, or a rest. And that’s fine.

But “coma” takes me back to a difficult time. When I was 20 years old, I spent 27 days in a coma.

If death is like a coma, this life is all there is. For me, a coma was nothing.

Nothing comes to mind. It isn’t even emptiness, because emptiness presumes there is a void to fill. It isn’t darkness, because there are no spaces and no lights in the distance. A coma feels like the permanent end. It is nothing.

I don’t remember being put “under” — my coma was induced by doctors to reduce pain as they treated me — as my condition deteriorated. My mom drove me to the hospital on a Friday morning, and I laid in a bed in the emergency room, feeling tired, groggy and very sick. I fell asleep as doctors and others entered and exited in a panic.

And I was gone. Nothing happened to me for 27 days. I did not see bright lights, or any lights at all. I did not hear stories read to me, or words spoken, or music. The sweetest messages, the saddest tears, the most gleeful laughs did not penetrate my brain’s freeze.

My mom told me after I woke up that she had been massaging my toes and feet when I was in the coma. I didn’t feel it, because I felt absolutely nothing. Sleep without dreams.

I was born in March, and next month I turn 26. I’ve experienced 24 Thanksgivings, because one of the 27 days I missed was the holiday. I missed my college’s big rivalry game (the last time they won), I missed six issues working on my college newspaper, I missed my mom’s birthday and my Grandpa’s birthday.

Gone. Nothing. Nonexistent.

The most interesting part is what happened after. When the doctors allowed me to wake up, I heaved forward and tried to escape from the slats keeping me in. My family told me I tried to rip my hands out of the constraints they’d put me in on the hospital bed. I awakened and I tried to escape. I wanted out of the bizarre, terrifying prison of nothing.

My body was wracked, weak to the point of nothing, destroyed. I had many complications, related to illness and injury, but my recovery lasted about a year and a half. My shoulders are still tight, my arms are still weaker than they should be, and my fingers still have tightness at times.

My toes, which my mom had massaged time and time again, were flexible. And they still are.

I survived the nothing, thanks to many people who were not me. I glided from normal to nothing to recovery. That’s probably not what a coma is for most, but that’s what it means to me.


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