Three Weeks in a Coma

In the summer of 1999, I fell ill with a high fever and terrible headache.  Soon I was too dizzy to walk.  My wife drove me in the middle of the night to the ER, where, as they began tests, I quickly faded from consciousness.  A brain scan showed I had encephalitis, a dire illness that often leads to death, blindness, or paralysis.  For three weeks I lay in a coma, unresponsive to any outside stimulus.  My irises didn’t even respond to bright light—a condition I was later told was “not compatible with continued life.”  In other words, as far as the doctors could tell, I was almost dead.

That’s how it looked from the outside. But inside my own mind, I was dreaming, living out one elaborate vision after another.  I had no awareness of the outside world, none whatsoever. Tubes snaked down my throat so I could breathe. I couldn’t see, hear, or sense touch, or know that my wife was at my side every waking hour.  But inside, my mind was continually creating its own reality, and not at random.  These visions had purpose; each of them had one goal—to help me wake up.  That much I knew: I was ill, I was in bed, and I had to wake up.  I wrote about all these experiences and more in my book Healing Lazarus: A Buddhist’s Journey From Near Death to New Life.

Not all comas are like this. Some people in coma are profoundly unconscious, and have little or no mental activity.  But when they hooked me up to an E.E.G. (a machine that measures electrical activity in the brain) my brain was producing normal-looking waves.  The doctors knew something was going on inside. That’s why they didn’t end my life support.  I hadn’t “flat-lined,” as they say.  There was still a speck of hope.

After three weeks, little by little, I started to wake up. It took another week before I could distinguish hallucination from reality and understand what my wife kept repeating to me: I had been very sick, but I was starting to recover. Thus I learned the first lesson of profound illness: sometimes the doctors are wrong. Sometimes you don’t die.  Much later, when I was completely recovered, I visited the neurologist who had tended me during my coma.  “What were my chances?” I asked him. “One in a thousand?”

He shook his head. “I’ve never seen it.  Nobody recovers the way you did.  One in a million…I don’t know.  Frankly, it was just a miracle.”

That was over twenty years ago, and I hadn’t thought about it all for many years, not until Covid came into the world.  Then I began reading about people going into the hospital, being hooked up to ventilators, losing consciousness, all alone because the hospital didn’t allow family to visit or be present.  I read about nurses holding up an IPad so families could say goodbye to their dying loved one over Facetime.  And my own brush with death came flooding back.  At least my wife was with me in the hospital every hour of every day, and my son came whenever he could.  I can’t say what got me through it, but I think my wife’s constant presence was key.  And I grieved for all those hundreds of thousands of Americans—not to mention the rest of the world—who had no choice but to die alone.  I don’t know the policy today.  Perhaps people who are vaccinated are allowed to visit patients. But still, in critical condition and often unconscious, the patient is essentially alone.

That was the second lesson of my illness: the healing power of love.  My wife and I had been together since high school—for our whole lives really.  She was a reason to live if I had no other, and I fought inside my visioning mind to return to her.  Later in my convalescence, when I lay in a rehab hospital, contending with double vision (a common side-effect of brain damage). I asked my doctor how long my double vision would last and she said, Oh, maybe six months. Six months!  With nothing else to occupy my time, I kept staring at the clock on the wall, trying to fuse the two clock images I saw.  Then one day my wife was visiting, sitting by my bed.  I looked at her and saw just one face! I looked away and everything was double again.  I looked back at her and saw just one face. There was no medical explanation for this, but I didn’t need one, I knew what it was. It was love.   

The final lesson I learned from my coma is that I knew how to die. In the midst of my myriad purposeful visions, I knew somehow that I was close to death but I wasn’t afraid.  I felt that something or someone was taking care of me, who would know what to do if I didn’t come back.  Perhaps it was a higher power, or perhaps it was some power within me—perhaps within everyone–that only emerges and starts to work when death is near.  Inside my mind I was calm and at peace.  Whatever happened would happen.  I had no body, I had no form, just a pure, calm, conscious awareness. 

Since then I have no fear of dying. I wish somehow I could magically visit all those multitudes of gasping, suffering people in hospitals everywhere as Covid destroys their lungs and prepares to take them, and tell their families that first of all, the doctors could be wrong, miracles do happen, and that even if they’re not wrong, their loved one is not truly alone.  Whether their loved one lives or dies, they will be taken care of as I was by the great wisdom of life itself, that knows what life is, what death is and how precious all of it is. Still, I cannot generalize my experience to those dying of Covid.  Those who are conscious are struggling with each breath, and are certainly not at peace.  But if they are not conscious, or are fading into the great beyond, I would hope that there is some compassionate power that can care for them on their journey.  I wish that for them.

I wish I could go to each one but I can’t.  The whole of humanity is going through this, and it is a terrible thing.  Each of us must do what we can to help and comfort the ill and suffering, wherever we can.  Convincing one unvaccinated person to get the shot would make a difference.