Terry Wallis showed only fleeting hints of consciousness for 19 years after he suffered a brain injury in a road accident. But then, in 2003, at age 39, he began to speak. It started with “Mom,” and then “Pepsi,” but soon he was slowly stringing sentences together and holding down his end of a conversation.
Far too often, patients like Wallis are given up for gone, left to languish in nursing homes where no one bothers with physical therapy or even to check for glimmers of regained consciousness, says Joseph Fins, a medical ethicist at Weill Cornell Medical College.
That’s at odds with a growing body of research showing that many patients with no outward signs of awareness retain some degree of consciousness. “We began to see patients who looked like they were vegetative, but they weren’t,” said Fins. “They were beginning to show responsiveness, they were sort of breaking the rules.”