Coma

EXCERPT FROM

NEW AGE JOURNAL

Letter from the Editor

September/October 1994

I HAVE A PASSION FOR STORIES OF EXTRAORDINARY healings. They bring me solace and inspiration in times of crisis. Twelve years ago, for example, when a close friend, Australian musician Hans Poulsen, was diagnosed with an advanced, and supposedly terminal case of cancer, the many remarkable cancer healing stories I had read helped me keep a hopeful attitude, I don’t know whether the positive support of his friends was the key element in his eventual recovery, but I do know that Hans appreciated it.

I had no such healing stories to draw on two years ago, however, when Hans once again became critically ill, He had suffered a massive brainstem hemorrhage and was in a deep coma, with only a 1 percent chance of survival.  Neither I, nor any of the other friends gathered at his bedside knew anything about the healing of this condition, and Hans’s doctors did, nothing to encourage hope.

Maybe because we were in denial, or maybe because our intuition told us that more was possible, we refused to accept the prognosis and began doing the only thing we could do, surround Hans with love.  We made sure someone was always with him.  We prayed at his bedside.  We played music and sang to him, and we repeatedly told him that we wanted him to live but also that it was OK if he chose to die.

About ten days into this bedside vigil, a healer who had heard of Hans’s case offered to fly in from Colorado to see if he could help.   As it turned out, Roger La Borde has a remarkable ability to communicate with coma patients and was crucial to Hans’s recovery.   Now, two years later, Hans still requires a wheelchair, but he continues to improve, beating the odds for a second time.

We’ve since discovered that Hans’s healing was not a complete anomaly.  With the help of healers and family members, many other patients have also recovered from coma even after doctors had given up hope.  And yet the phenomenon has received little notice.  When writer Brad Lemley investigated the subject for the story that appears on page 8o, he found numerous intriguing cases.  We hope they’ll be helpful as well.  I wish this kind of article had been available two years ago, when I first sat at Hans’s bedside wondering what consciousness was left in that seeming shell of a body.

Back from Coma

REPORTS FROM SURVIVORS-AND HEALERS-WHO WORK WITH THEM-ARE CHALLENGING-OLD ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT THIS ENIGMATIC-STATE OF CONSCIOUSNESS.

By Brad Lemley

TO ALL WHO WITNESSED it, Peter Peelgrane’s return from the brink of death was nothing short of miraculous.  A helicopter pilot internationally renowned for his flying skill, Peelgrane was working for a Denver Colorado, Television station on February12 , 1992, when his chopper’s engine suddenly lost all power.  Slowing the fall with his free-spinning rotor, he was able to land the craft safely on an ice floe in the middle of a local reservoir. But then the ice gave way and Peelgrane and two friends, both freelance photographers, were cast into the thirty-four-degree water. As Peelgrane looked on, first one then the other friend slipped beneath the surface. When the rescuers finally fished Peelgrane from the frigid lake forty minutes later, the pilot’s heart had stopped and his core temperature had dropped to seventy-two degrees– as low as has been recorded among hypothermia survivors.  Working on his stiff utterly lifeless form seemed futile, but paramedics began resuscitation anyway. In such cold water cases they have a saying. They’re not dead until they are warm and dead.  By boat and then aircraft, he was transported to a Fort Collins hospital, where doctors opened his chest, revived his heart, and connected him to a ventilator so he could breathe. Clinically dead for forty-five minutes, Peelgrane was once again alive, but in a profound coma.

Peelgrane’s rescue and resuscitation, however, is not what friends and relatives remember as the miraculous part of his story.  Even more incredible is what came next, as Peelgrane lay captive within the supposedly insensible sleep of coma. Indeed, his case would soon challenge some very basic assumptions about the nature and significance of this enigmatic state of consciousness–and, in turn, how the ethically difficult question of removing life support should be decided.

As the days passed, Peelgrane’s prognosis worsened. “The doctors kept telling me that after seven days in the coma, his chance of recovery was less than 2 percent,” recalls Peelgrane’s wife, Karen Quinn. “They suggested that I pull the life support, that I was not being fair to Peter.”

Quinn was spared making that awful decision by the arrival of Roger La Borde, a forty-eight-year-old healer who claims an unusual facility for communicating with the comatose. La Borde, of Crestone, Colorado, says that one night in 1977, in the midst of an excruciating divorce, he “gave up control” of his life, an “emptying” process that he says opened him to a new reality. In the following year, the former executive recruiter for Exxon says he had a series of powerful psychokinetic and clairvoyant experiences and developed a healing ability under the tutelage of Gerald Red Elk, a Sioux shaman. A brain wave test on La Borde in 1989 revealed extremely high delta waves—exactly the EEG profile of people in coma. In his report on the Test procedure, EEG researcher Edgar S. Wilson, M.D. called La Borde’s results ‘profoundly unusual” and said that he had “no explanation” for it. At the suggestion of a friend who had filmed La Borde for a BBC documentary Quinn brought the healer into Peelgrane’s room on that seventh night. “I told the nurses that Roger was another long lost cousin, because they had this stupid rule about relatives only,” she says. “When Roger walked into the room, he put his hands on Peter’s arm and I put my hands on Peter’s other arm, and I got this, like, electric jolt in my stomach.’” From ten o’clock that evening until two the next morning, La Borde says he simply sat in a corner of the room and tried to “connect” with Peelgrane. “It’s a space I can move into, and I know when I have connected with the other person,” he says.

After four hours, he says, he succeeded. Then, in a low voice, he told Peelgrane that the time had come to decide whether to live or move on. “I told him that if he were going to stay, I needed a physical sign.” La Borde told Peelgrane to imagine that he was walking in a field of flowers. He described the colors and the smells, and then said, “You know, Peter, when you are walking through a field of flowers, you have to move your feet.” Peelgrane immediately started moving his feet under the sheets-the first sign of deliberate movement since the accident. La Borde managed to get Peelgrane to repeat the performance for his nurse and physical therapist, and he improved steadily, if slowly, from there.

La Borde continued working with Peelgrane, sometimes stunning the staff of the Poudre Valley Hospital, in Fort Collins, Colorado. “I’ve been a nurse for twenty years, and I’d never seen anything like it,” Joan Grant, a primary-care nurse, told the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper at the time. She said when Peelgrane had spells of aggitation, La Borde would come and stand next to him. “He didn’t physically touch him, but you could see the change in the monitors– blood pressure, pulse, respiration. It happened at least three times that I saw. I was amazed by it.”

As would be most medical professionals. John J. Caronna, M.D., professor of clinical neurology at New York Hospital’s  , reflects the view of many in mainstream medicine when he dismisses as “rubbish” such reports of communication, psychic or otherwise with anyone in a true coma. “By definition,” he says, “you cannot communicate with a person in a coma. That person is unconscious.” Still, interviews with doctors, nurses, nontraditional healers, and, especially, the formerly comatose themselves suggest that this unique state may be far more complex than current medical thinking allows. Unusual, spiritual, meaningful things happen in coma, they say. And unusual, spiritual, and meaningful measures are required to reach into these states and help people return to consciousness or, if the patient wishes, to carry out a decision to die I truly believe that a very significant percentage of people in comas could be brought out, if you approach it with the attitude, “Let’s find out what is going on with this person, and let’s help this person go or stay,” says La Borde.  “It’s like suicide.  If someone will just sit down and talk to a person who is contemplating suicide, there are a lot of people who will decide not to kill themselves.  It’s important for people to know that there are other things to do besides listening to a physician who says, ‘There’s no hope, pull the plug.’  Why leave families in despair, when there is so much that can be done?”   

Peelgrane and Quinn no doubt agree.  Today, less than three years after the accident, Peelgrane, now forty-eight, continues to make remarkable progress.  His speech is back   to normal, salted with the distinctive slang and wry wit of his native Australia.  Though   largely confined to a wheelchair and wrestling with a porous memory, he is constantly   improving.

The NINE-DAY COMA THAT ENGULFED Mary Kay Blakely, a Greenwich, Connecticut, writer, in 1984 dealt her not long-term disabilities.  But by that time she was already on the way to becoming an emotional casualty, due to multiple crises: a wrenching divorce, separation from her sons, her elder brother’s recent suicide, a crushing work load, and an empty bank account.

When she finally did lapse into a coma, Blakely was in bed in her lover’s Manhattan apartment.  The diagnosis was a glucose imbalance brought on by diabetes.  But even after her blood sugar was stabilized, she remained resolutely comatose for a week.  Blakely believes that diabetes was only the vehicle on which she rode into the deep peace of her coma.  “It’s clear to me that the causes were as much psychological as physiological,” she says.  A compulsive worker and worrier, “I would never have given myself permission to lie on a bed for hours and hours and do nothing but think.”

And the sort of thinking she did in coma was unique, and seductive.  “I had feelings of total euphoria.  It’s as if I were thinking with a different kind of brain.  In everyday thinking, we work so hard to labor from A to B to C.  In this state, the thought flowed instantly.  If there was a worry, or question, or fear, the answer was simultaneously presented, and it was instant and total.  That’s why the state was fearless, because you had access to all knowledge.”

A lapsed Catholic when she had her coma at age thirty-seven, Blakely says the experience—which she chronicled in her 1989 book, Wake Me When It’s Over (Times Books)—reminded her of the faith of her youth.  “It was he first time I understood what they meant by ‘The peace that passeth understanding.’  I had thought it meant that there was some kind of peace that was beyond human understanding.  Now I understand; it is the peace that comes with total understanding.  We never get it as long as we must struggle with our human machinery.”  So profound was Blakely’s shift in perspective that the coma now demarcates her life.  She mentally appends B.C. (Before Coma) to all dates before March 22, 1984; those after her awakening are all A.D. (After Death).

Such reactions don’t surprise Arnold Mindell, and author and therapist based in Portland, Oregon, who, along with his students, has worked with hundreds of coma patients.  “The incredible experiences we have with people in comas show that often there are dramatic, powerful meaningful events that are trying to unfold themselves in comatose states.  When people come out, they often say that everything prior to the coma in their lives—their dreams, their experiences, and so on—was pointing to the experiences they had in the comatose state, experiences they could not get to before.”

That said, it is important to avoid glamorizing comas.  In this spiritually hungry age, any altered state from lucid dreaming to deep meditation to ganja fog is touted as the royal road to enlightenment.  But one must remember that real tragedy often accompanies coma.  There can be lessons in coma, but they are often hard, even brutal lessons.  According to the National head Injury Foundation, comas caused by head trauma, even when they last as little as six hours, often leave behind lifelong gaps in reasoning and memory.  If coma is a route of spiritual ascent, it is certainly the north face of the climb.

Consider the case of Dan Connor of Lafayette, Colorado, who in March of 1993, at age thirty-three, underwent an eighteen-hour operation to remove a massive tumor from the base of his brain.  He was lucid for ten hours after the surgery, but then lapsed into a coma.  The doctors eventually told his wife it was up to her to decide when they should turn off the life support.  She turned to La Borde instead, and with his help Dan has made a startling recovery.  Yet when asked for hs memories of the state, he laughs and says, in a halting manner, “I’m not too god at remembering anymore.”  He is also plagued by poor balance, and it remains to be seen whether he can return to his old avocation of renovating classic BMWs.

And yet even those who have lost a great deal from their comas can retrieve something valuable from the experience.  “I was close enough to death, and I know what it is,” Conner says.  “It’s not horrible like people think.  Death is placid.”  Though he lacks the specific memory of a near-death experience—the whoosh through a tunnel, the welcoming dead relatives, the loving light—he somehow earned the serenity that commonly trails in the wake of that experience.  Where once he had been frightened of his mortality, he now has “no fear of death at all.”

Hans Poulsen, a talented singer and songwriter, also paid a price for his brain injury coma. A sudden brain-stem hemorrhage (of the kind that, doctors told him, give a victim only a 1 percent chance of surviving) has left him confined to a hospital, unable to sing or play instruments. Yet, even more than Conner, Poulsen feels that his disabled condition is a small roll for the necessary knowledge he gained.

“I was in space, and I came to a net of love,” says Poulsen, forty-nine, who like Peelgrane and Conner was treated by Roger La Borde. “I was captured by it. The net was the prayers and good wishes of all of the friends who knew that I was in a coma. That net definitely helped to bring me back to consciousness.

“Before the coma, it seems to me that my life was a dream. Since the coma, I have been forced to wake up.”

As part of his recuperation process Poulsen has taken up Siddha Yoga, which he says puts him into a peaceful state similar to what he recalls from his coma. “Like the coma, it forces you into consciousness. It takes you away from the game.” The game, he explains, is the everyday world of consensus reality with its pressing but ultimately trivial demands.

“When people go through these experiences,” notes La Borde, “many of them definitely remember something unusual, something they would describe as very spiritual.” But he adds that “it comes in its own, distinct package.” No two experiences are alike.

In 1991, at age 63, Richard Selzer, M.D., a retired Connecticut surgeon and author, suddenly found himself watching as a “the pattern of the wallpaper turned from green to gold; the figures in it grew wavy, they vibrated like heat rising from a pavement.”  It’s the last thing he remembers for more than three weeks.

The diagnosis was a sudden onset of Legionnaires’ disease.  Though he sank into a coma, and described the experience in meticulous and sometimes painful detail in his 1993 book, Raising the Dead (Viking), everything Selzer writes or says about it is only an educated guess, based on what his thirty-five years of medical practice tell him must have happened.  “I have no real memory of it at all,” he says, “except for a brief flash of something floating by, little minnows of light.  I also recall a momentary sensation of being confined, of not being able to sit up or turn over, as though I were in the upper berth of a Pullman car, crossing the prairie at night.  It was always night in the coma.”

Similarly, Peter Peelgrane has persistently stated that he recalls nothing about his coma. His wife says she “had a sense that he was with his two friends, that they were all together someplace, and that he was trying to decide whether to go with them or come back.” But, about five months after the accident she adds, her husband seems to have visited another mysterious realm. “He started yelling and grabbing his chest and saying, “I’m shot! I’m shot!” she says. ” A close friend there with him asked him what he meant, and he said he was in a B-52 . He was a tail gunner and he was going down, and he was shot in the chest. The friend asked Peter if he was OK and he said, ‘No, I died.’ It’s Interesting, because Peter was born in 1945.”

A month later, he was scheduled for a magnetic resonance imaging procedure. Because it involves powerful magnetic forces, technicians routinely ask patients if they have any metal objects in their bodies, such as shrapnel. Peelgrane, who at that point had recovered most of his mental faculties, said he did, in his chest. Asked if it had been taken out, he replied, “No, it killed me.”

If, as Hans Poulsen and others have indicated, the deep peace of meditation can be similar to the deep peace of a coma, there remains an important difference: The trick is getting into the former state, and out of the latter one. In this regard, say the survivors, interviewed for this story, modern medical science aside from addressing the physical problem that sent them spiraling into coma in the first place had little to offer them. Many shared uncannily similar tales of mainstream medicine’s wrong headed approach to coma of family members who were barred from their bedsides in intensive care units, and of doctors and nurses whose only attempt at establishing communication was to shout, “Open your eyes!” In at least three of the cases reported here Conner’s, Poulsen’s, and Peelgrane’s family members and friends say doctors urged them to withdraw life supporting machinery, although their instincts told them there was still hope.

Arnold Mindell advocates another approach entirely.  In his book Coma: Key to Awakening (Shambhala) he outlines a technique that he says anyone can learn.  And the results, he says, can be dramatic.

One of Mindell’s recent cases involved a woman who as a result of a severe car accident had been in a coma and on a respirator for more than a year.  Because the CATscans indicated that she would remain in a vegetative state, the doctors were recommending that life support be removed, and her family was divided over what would be best.  “We worked with the woman by following the movements of her jaw as she was breathing,” Mindell explains.  “As she was moving her jaw, we gently touched the relevant muscles and told her that if she wanted to say yes, tighten those muscles, if no, she should relax them.”  All the family members were then gathered around her, and Mindell asked: Would you like to go on living now?  “the ‘yes’ response would have been movement of the jaw,” he says.  “Up until then, it had been a subtle and occasional quiver.  But when we posed that question, she opened her mouth, huge!  That was the end of the discussion in the family.  After that, everyone was very interested in her survival.  Now she is coming back to life.  Nobody had asked her before.  She is redeveloping her capacity to speak…who knows?”

Though their techniques differ, La Borde and Mindell agree completely on two points: No one is so deeply comatose that he or she cannot be reached, and the agonizing decision of whether to live or die should be made by the comatose person alone.

“Everyone in a coma can communicate, but you have to be there all the time,” says La Borde. “You must talk to the person, hold their hand, and watch them constantly, because the first movement can be just a subtle squeeze of the hand or a movement of the eye.” Because this can ‘be such a long vigil, busy doctors and nurses can’t do it. Only love can sustain it which is why families and friends are often the difference between life and death for a comatose person.

La Borde and Mindell believe that some comatose people will choose to die, and must be supported in that decision. But they also feel that many comatose people will decide to live, if someone is willing to exert him or herself to listen. Poulsen, for example, recalls how La Borde “came to me while I was in coma and told me that medical technology was doing its best.” As a result, he says, “Roger was crucial in bringing me back.”

Adds Mindell: “The family means well, as it wrestles with this decision of whether or not to pull the plug, but my message is, It’s not their decision. All of the energy that is expended in making this wrenching choice should be devoted to learning how to communicate with the individual, so that he or she can decide.”

AMID THE MANY MYSTERIES OF COMA, there is an aspect that is beyond dispute.  However it is done, once the comatose person’s return to consciousness is achieved, he or she is rarely the same.

To begin with, there is the transformative lesson of the coma itself.  At the very least, it has the same power to reweave the fabric of one’s life that any brush with death can have.  For those such as Selzer, whose memories of the state are dim, this is the coma’s legacy.  “I am not fundamentally changed, and yet I do fell positively posthumous,” he says with a smile.  “And it is a wonderful feeling.  You come within a whisker of death, and things take on a different value.  You are grateful for the smallest encounters with nature and life.  Everything seems an extra reward.”

The lesson goes even deeper for those whose comas came with spiritual accouterment—feelings of omniscience, a near-death experience, a past-life visitation, or a “mind-link” with a healer.  The formerly comatose individuals in this story said there was a sense of rightness about it, as if it were a necessary lesson that came at the proper time.  In his book, Mindell offers the example of a client who had been in a coma brought about by a severe illness.  The man suddenly, spontaneously, recuperated and jumped back into his normal life, refusing to consider or even think about what he had experienced in the coma.  He soon developed dizzy spells, and as a result was in a serious automobile accident that again knocked him unconscious.

In therapy with Mindell, the man determined that a “force” had caused him to plow into the tree, a force that said, “Go back into the coma. Free yourself from your mortal concerns.”  Mindell writes that “this discovery had a great impact on him, and he decided to pay less attention to his financial security and career goals and to risk living more of his own creative desires.  This need for a new lifestyle, I imagine, had been at the core of his coma.”

Similarly, though she had always been safety conscious and careful, Mary Kay Blakely had a car accident and two bicycle mishaps in the weeks preceding her coma—none put her into a coma, but any of them could have.  As a writer and lecturer, Blakely had always sought absolution through words: voluminous letters, marathon arguments, even a 500 page divorce agreement.  Enmeshed in multiple crises, her body chose the opposite route: It flung her into silence.  And it worked.  That silence, so close to death, lightened her perspective on meeting writing deadlines.  “’I’ve been in a coma,’” she writes, “was the best excuse I’d offered so far for being late.”  She began turning down other magazine articles to do she really wanted to do: edit a suitcase full of notes left behind by her brother Frank, a brilliant manic-depressive who committed suicide.

On this aspect of coma, Roger La Borde cautions against generalizing.  “I don’t subscribe to the theory that we go into comas always to help ourselves grow.” He says.  “It can be like other situations in which we stop in our tracks to help someone else progress.  But for the individual, it introduces the concept that there is more to life than what you see, more to life than just the physical body.”

But comas also change lives in a less obvious way: a loved one’s comatose form often becomes a gathering place around which geographically—and psychologically—scattered family members can cluster and reflect on their love for the unconscious person.  The sort of love that is typically poured out at a funeral is gathered and expressed at the bedside of the comatose patient, and everyone is transformed by it.

As Blakely puts it in Wake Me When It’s Over: “I’m embarrassed that when the going got tough, I keeled over into a coma, but it did not turn out to be a tragedy for me.  While I slept, my family and friends conducted the equivalent of a nine-day wake, remembering all the reasons they loved me, feelings they wished they’d expressed but hadn’t because we thought there was plenty of time.  These words, struck in private minds, poured out when I awakened.  It was an amazing experience to wake up into an atmosphere of unconditional love, as adult, knowing that my family and friends had forgiven me.”  The effect has been lasting: She and her ex-husband have crafted a friendship she never believed possible in the “B.C.” years.

And on the other side of the bedrail, the experience can be equally powerful.  “I have gained tremendously,” says Karen Quinn, voicing the sentiments of so many who witnessed Peter Peelgrane’s remarkable return from death.  “It has changed my whole perspective on life.  I understand more about the power of the human spirit.  You start there, and everything else follows.”

Keys to Awakening

Advice from healers on communicating with the comatose.

 

     WHEN DAN CONNER WAS IN A COMA AFTER brain surgery, doctors trying to rouse him dug a sharp instrument into the exquisitely sensitive skin just below his fingernails to see if he would respond to pain. Due to his paralyzed condition he could not respond to or stop the torment, but could feel that it “hurt really bad.” Indeed most of the formerly comatose people and their family members who were interviewed for this story complained that the techniques used by doctors and nurses to establish communication were crude, and even painful. What’s more, techniques such as shouting “Wake up or “Open your eyes!” never worked, they say.

Healer Roger La Borde and therapist Arnold Mindell report remarkable success treating patients with far subtler methods, many of which can be employed by family members.  As a first step, La Borde encourages family members to become involved in the healing process.  Being physically present in the room—a frequent source of controversy, especially when patients are in intensive care—is crucial, he says.  “The family should be with the patient constantly, holding his or her hand, telling the person how much they love them, saying, ‘It’s OK to go, we will miss you but we’ll let you go,’ or ‘Come back if you choose.’”

“If you have a neurologist or ICU nurses coming in for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, just managing the technical aspects, the IVs, and so forth, you have no one in the room just sitting there and watching.  Sometimes it can just be a subtle squeeze of the thumb or index finger—something that happens only for an instant—that can become the opening…a finger movement can progress to a squeeze to shaking the head yes and no.  But if someone is not there, now one will know.”

In his book Coma: Key to Awakening, Mindell describes a technique that he says has opened communication with hundreds of people in coma.  Mindell’s thesis is that a comatose person is not simply “blank.”  He is actually experiencing an alternate reality that may consist of vivid imagery, and the way to establish communication is to join patients in their trance-imagery rather than demand that they return to everyday consciousness.  Mindell’s technique consists of three steps, presented here briefly:

  1. Connecting.  Sit near the client.  When the client exhales, speak gently, near his ear, in the same rhythm as his breathing.  Say something like, “Hello, I am (your name).  I am really here with you today.  I am going to speak with you, and in a moment I will also gently touch your arm….Now, this is my hand on your arm.  You can feel me pressing gently on your arm.  This is a way of being with you.”  Gently touch the client’s arm as he inhales, and relax your touch as he exhales.  Speaking and touching him in the same rate as his breathing means that you are communicating with him in his own language.
  2. Finding the way.  Make a statement about your intentions, such as “I am following the rate of your breathing.  I want to follow everything that happens in you.  What goes on inside and outside of you is important because it will show us how to proceed.  It will show us the way.”  Point out to the client that all he has to do is notice whatever is happening, and that he can take all the time he needs.
  3. Pick up minimal cues.  While you tell him to hear, feel, or see what is happening, watch for minimal cues such as changes in breathing rate, spasms, jerks, twitches, grimaces, or other physical movements, or eye changes such as opening, focusing, or directing the gaze.  Encourage any movement you do see by saying something like, “Oh, what a lovely movement!”  Use whatever movement the person can make to open a dialogue. If all that he can do is tense his jaw, have him tense it to indicate “yes” and relax it to mean “no”.  As the person realizes he is not alone, he may begin to speak, though the words may seem nonsensical.  Whatever he describes, open your imagination and put yourself there with him, admiring the scene together.  You can thus help him complete the vision and decide whether to join it—either by dying or by awakening and bringing the lessons of the experience back with him.