When I was little, one of my mom’s best childhood friends had a kid who crashed into a tree while he was sledding and was in a coma for a long time.
I was very young, so I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that the idea was pretty petrifying. To a kid, a coma is like being asleep – except you can’t wake up, and everyone wants you too, but there’s nothing anyone can do. If it was that distressing for me, I can’t imagine what it was like for his family, and I certainly can’t imagine what it was like for him.
There’s a lot that we still don’t understand about our brains. One of the biggest mysteries is why and how we experience “consciousness,” or the sense that we exist as a person. And some of the most useful insight into consciousness comes from people who have experienced near-death states or comas. Coma survivor stories give us a glimpse into the minds of people in comatose states, and a greater chance at understanding the conscious mind.
A coma is a state deeper than sleep, where a person doesn’t respond to strong outside sensations (like pain) and doesn’t have a normal sleep/wake cycle. People in a coma can have varying degrees of consciousness, from “completely unconscious” to “aware of everything is happening around them.” Often, patients will float between the two states, briefly “waking” to some level of awareness.
“I was in a coma (medically induced, with full-body paralysis) for six weeks. There were a handful of times that I distinctly remember where I “woke up” in my head. What was the experience like? It sucked.” (TheOpus)
There are two kinds of coma: a “real coma” and a medically-induced coma. The “real coma” is the kind of coma you hear about in hospital soap operas, one where the person is comatose for reasons not under medical control (like illness or trauma). In a controlled coma, doctors “put the patient under” with a controlled dose of anesthetic to slow down blood flow to the brain. This usually only happens when the patient is experiencing life-threatening brain swelling, as slowing down blood flow to the brain helps decrease the swelling.
Generally, a coma happens as the result of damage to one of two areas in the brain: the cerebral cortex, or the RAS. The cerebral cortex is the “outside” part of our brain, responsible for conscious thoughts and feelings. The RAS, on the other hand, is a part of our brain stem responsible for regulating our sleep/wake cycles. Comas can be caused by many different factors, but the two most common ones are drug poisoning and lack of oxygen to the brain. Drugs are especially likely to damage the RAS, leading directly to a comatose state.
The last proper memory I had was being surrounded by doctors on a table with these insanely bright high-powered lights pointed at me. I was sweating from the heat of them but still felt like I was freezing, because of all the blood I’d lost.
After that I was out for at least a week, then I started to come round for a few moments at a time. I remember looking down and seeing two catheter lines in both my arms and two in my chest. They’d ran out of space so they even put one in my foot. As they slowly lowered the dosage of tranquilizers I woke up more and more, downside of that being that I could suddenly feel all the pain I’d been too doped up to register until then. That was fun.
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