Article Thumbnail

What It Really Feels Like to Wake Up from a Coma

‘When [the nurse] looked into the netting they had over my bed, we met eyes. Her mouth dropped, tears filled her eyes and she ran out of the room’

Within 15 days of contracting COVID-19, 29-year-old Callum Spence slipped into a coma. “A chest x-ray found that I had COVID-pneumonia in both my lungs, my blood oxygen levels had slipped into the 80s [anything below 90 is cause for concern], and on January 7th I was transferred to the ICU to receive increasing amounts of oxygen,” he tells me. Two days later, Spence was put on a ventilator. He also sent texts to friends and family that he now doesn’t remember sending, and that he hasn’t had the courage to look at. “My mum told me I just sent my grandmother, ‘I love you,’” he says.

The next day, his world went dark. “I was in a coma for the next seven days,” he explains. The day he woke up, he says, was “unlike anything captured in movies or TV.”

To better understand what he means by that, I asked him and two others who have been in a coma at some point in their lives to describe what it feels like to suddenly become conscious again.

‘I Thought I’d Killed Someone Outside of a Nightclub’

Callum Spence, 29, in a coma for seven days: Because I had persistent delusions and hallucinations for three days after I woke up from my coma, I have a hard time trusting my memories of the transition. For instance, the very first memory I have from waking up was the delusion that the clock was moving too fast. I would scan my eyes from one side of the room to the other, look back at the clock and 15 minutes had passed.

The first time I genuinely recall learning that I’d been in a coma is when my mum and brother came in on the second day I was awake. I was convinced they were just there to say goodbye to me.

The majority of the delusions I suffered involved the staff trying to kill me because, I believed, I had killed someone outside a nightclub. I also believed that the whiteboard on the wall was a computer (it wasn’t) and that the doctor spent his day writing messages about the murder on it to taunt me.

In reality, all the whiteboard said was, “Hello Callum, today is the 20th of January. Your nurse today is Harley.” But I was so convinced of my delusion that the doctor had written clues on it, that when my mum visited, I begged her to tell me the name of the man I killed. It was horrible for her.

I later learned that this is called “ICU Delirium” and that about two-thirds of people who go on a ventilator experience it. Now it’s just a funny story, and thankfully, I don’t have any lingering issues with confusion or anxiety about what did or didn’t happen. It was pretty freaky at the time, though.

Outside the delusions, my long-term memory was scrambled. The earliest thing I could remember was a holiday my family had taken in July 2020. My mum had to remind me what had happened between July and December, and whenever she did, my original memories of those events came back straight away. It was weird, like they needed to be unlocked: “Callum, you made those ricotta balls for Christmas, you remember?” “Oh yeah, they were a pain in the ass!”

Paralytic drugs paralyze all your muscles, too. So when I woke up, my body had to figure out how to poop again, how to make the arm go up and to the left, how to focus my eyes even with my glasses on. I was very accepting of my limitations at that stage because I was so confused and sick. It would be several weeks of intensive physical therapy before I could walk more than a meter or two.

It was such a huge moment when I could get myself out of bed, grab the frame and go to the bathroom by myself. Even after being discharged from the hospital, it wasn’t until May that I was able to reach my previous level of physical fitness and walk four kilometers on my own.

I never, however, had any epiphanies. I almost feel short-changed on that one, like the deal is that you have a near-death experience and you’re supposed to grow as a person, to see the world differently, go off to a Tibetan monastery and have everyone call you a guru. None of that happened! The only changes are practical ones: I used to hate needles but now they’re no big deal. My yawn is more aggressive and my sneeze is different, but my cough and hiccups remain the same. It’s very strange.

‘I Had to Sign So Much Paperwork’

John, 40, in a coma for 27 days: I was in a car accident, and after the impact, I don’t remember a thing until I woke up in the hospital. I’d been in a coma for nearly a month.

There were maybe a few moments in that timespan where I could hear the people around me, but I couldn’t move or wake up or talk. It was a surreal experience, to hear their voices — I remember hearing family, I remember hearing paramedics when I was being transported to another facility, but I was helpless to say or do anything in response. There were times that I wanted to pull myself out of it but couldn’t wake up. There were times I recall hoping I never would. These moments were very short and random. Everything else is just nothing.

Waking up, I was completely disoriented; I didn’t know where I was or what was happening. I had no idea how much time had passed, or if it had passed at all. I remember this guy saying, “There he is, I knew he’d make it,” and it just puzzled me. When I asked why, they responded that I had nearly died, but a steroid treatment kept me alive.

So there I was, bare-assed in a hospital bed, 200 miles from my house. I had to sign so much paperwork. It was so painful to use my hands. I had to relearn how to eat, dress, shower, walk, everything.

I’m still in debt for almost $80,000 in medical bills — on top of my student loans for my degree in physics and mathematics and my law degree. Not to mention, it took over 18 months to get a job after painful physical rehabilitation and explaining over and over again that I was in a coma, not just “not working.” If you have even a moment of unemployment on your resume, employers can be super fickle and shallow.

Months later, I’m still learning about who did — or didn’t — visit, pray, call or ask about me. I also still have to argue with some people in my family that it wasn’t a suicide attempt, but a car accident. Trust me, I have the medical bills to prove it.

‘I Was Immediately Craving Pizza’

John Pennington, 36, in a coma for six months: I woke up thinking it was the next day, and I was getting up to go to work. But for some reason, my arms and legs were tied down. I started to panic before realizing I was in a hospital. I pressed the “call nurse” button on the bed, but the man on the other side seemed annoyed. He asked me my name and everything in a very aggressive manner. I replied defensively, confused about why he was being so rude. Turns out, he didn’t believe it was me speaking to him, because I wasn’t supposed to be able to talk — let alone be conscious.

A nurse came into my room and walked around as if I was unconscious. When she looked into the netting they had over my bed, we met eyes. Having regained my composure a bit, I said to her, “Hello, can you untie me so I can use the restroom?”

Almost immediately, tears filled her eyes, her mouth went wide before she covered it with her hand and she ran out of the room. This made me think I must have definitely killed someone. I pressed the “call nurse” button again and the man said the nurse would be back, but chuckled and said she “just needed a minute.” When she came back, she apologized and explained that I had been in a coma due to a very severe traumatic brain injury, and apparently, the neurologist said if I did eventually wake up, I wouldn’t be able to do much of anything. It was very likely I’d end up a vegetable.

Of course, that didn’t happen. I was very conscious. I remember food smelled amazing — and this was hospital food we’re talking about. I had a nurse ask me if there was anything I wanted, and I was craving all the wrong things, so I told her pizza. She laughed and told me she couldn’t let me have pizza. I was very disappointed, to say the least.

Eventually, the neurologist came in and explained the injury. He said that someone had just hit the Megabucks lottery for a whole lot of money around that time, but that guy wasn’t a tenth as lucky as I was to have regained full consciousness.

For the next two years, I underwent intensive rehab at the Nevada Community Enrichment Program, or NCEP, learning how to function as an adult while dealing with the disabilities that suffering from a traumatic brain injury brings. I didn’t understand it very well at the time, but after going through rehab and seeing others way worse off than I was, I understood a lot better that my doc was right — I am a very lucky man.

That said, it’s a lonely place to be coming out of a coma. I had some friends come by, but not nearly enough. The loneliness I experienced was horrible. Honestly, nothing about it has been easy — even now. I’m a large, tough man, but I did and still do come to tears. Fortunately, I’m a fighter and don’t give up easily.