12 years a slave to Barney: Man wakes from 10+ year coma, asks for toothbrush

man awakes

When South African Martin Pistorius awakened from the vegetative state under which he had spent 12 years, he left everybody speechless – especially when he asked, “hey, what’s my cousin Oscar been up to?” Actually, Pistorius’ hell-and-back journey took place during the 80’s and 90’s. It was only until recently that his story became known through the book Ghost Boy: My Escape From A Life Locked Inside My Own Body, which he co-wrote. His ordeal has received even more widespread attention in the past few days thanks to an interview on NPR’s new podcast Invisibilia.

Pistorius was a normal teenager – if a geeky one whose interests included electronics – until the age of 12, when a rare disease, which the doctors believed was crypotococcal meningitis though they never could quite put their finger on it, gradually deprived him of his ability to move and communicate, and to even make eye contact. Doctors assured his parents he would remain a vegetable till he died, which would be soon. However, “Martin just kept going, just kept going,” said his mother. And he did so in more ways than one. According to Pistorius, he started to wake up two years into his coma-like state. “I had a sense that something was wrong,” he told British TV show The Wright Stuff. “I suppose you can almost describe it like when you are trying to wake up from a dream, but can't.”

Unfortunately, “everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn't notice when I began to be present again,” Pistorius told NPR. “The stark reality hit me that I was going to spend the rest of my life like that— totally alone.” Said life revolved around this routine: his father Rodney would get up bright and early, dress his son up, and drive him to the aforementioned center. “Eight hours later, I'd pick him up, bathe him, feed him, put him in bed, set my alarm for two hours so that I'd wake up to turn him so that he didn't get bedsores,” said Rodney. Meanwhile, Martin’s mother actually hoped he would die. “I know that's a horrible thing to say,” she defends herself now. “I just wanted some sort of relief.” Thankfully she didn’t grab a pillow and go Chief Bromden on her son.   

Although he could not speak or move, as he fully regained consciousness between ages 16-19, he became aware of everything that was going around him – he even claims to have heard his mother speak those damning words. However, the ability to perceive things came at first more as a curse than a blessing.  For example, the never ending reruns of Barney he was subjected to at the special care center where he spent his days – an infernal circle so horrible that Dante left it out of the Divine Comedy. Moreover, it was the realization that he was basically Timothy Bottoms in Johnny Got His Gun that broke his spirit – very bad news when spirit is all you’ve got.

In consequence, Pistorius fully assumed the kind of non-being that Bergman conveys in Persona – and like the protagonist of that film, he was aware but could not react to global tragedies like 9/11. “You don't really think about anything,” he said. “You simply exist. It's a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish.” However hard he tried, though, he couldn’t escape the purple abomination that, like Great Cthulhu, haunted his nightmares with vistas of unutterable cosmic horror. In order to distract himself he learned to tell time by following the sun across the room – “when the sun gets here we can drink again,” as Lenny would say. “I can still tell the time of day by the shadows,” Pistorius told NPR. If only he’d had use of at least one arm by then, he could have preserved his sanity by dribbling a basketball. He could have even made a game of it; seeing  how many times he could bounce the ball in a day, then trying to break that  record.

In time, Pistorius learned to refocus his negative thoughts, and as his mind improved so did his physical body. He was able to communicate with the aid of a computer when he was 26, and eventually his speech and movement came back to him. Today, the 39 year old Pistorius lives in England with his wife and is both the founder of a web company – thanks to having studied computer science in college – and a published author. A truly uplifting story of the triumph of the human will – so long as it doesn’t prove to be a hoax like A Million Little Pieces, of course. 

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