Man in vegetative state for 12 years wakes up to tell remarkable story


Martin Pistorius was in a physically vegetative state after developing a rare condition. But, much to his parents’ surprise, woke 12 years later to tell that he’d regained consciousness about two years after losing his ability to move and speak. (Photo courtesy Martin Pistorius)

When Martin Pistorius was 12 years old, he came down with a strange illness that caused him to lose his ability to walk, talk and make eye contact, reported.

Pistorius, of Harlow, England, appeared to be in a coma-like state, and doctors scratched their heads over his condition. Their best bet: crypotococcal meningitis. They told Rodney and Joan Pistorius, his parents, who were living in South Africa at the time, to take their son home because his time left was limited.

But, his mother said, “Martin just kept going, just kept going.”

Indeed, Pistorius kept going— insofar as his mind stayed active— for 12 years. Although his parents thought he’d been akin to a vegetable physically and mentally, Pistorius, now 39, says he regained consciousness about two years after the condition assaulted his body.

In sum, he still couldn’t speak or move, but he could think, he told NPR.

“Everyone was so used to me not being there that they didn’t notice when I began to be present again,” he told NPR. “The stark reality hit me that I was going to spend the rest of my life like that— totally alone.”

His mother, unaware of her son’s consciousness, didn’t think he could process anything she said.

One day she recalls uttering to him, “I hope you die.”

“I know that’s a horrible thing to say,” she told NPR. “I just wanted some sort of relief.”

The lives of the Pistorius family centered around caring for Martin. NPR reported that Rodney Pistorius would wake up at 5 a.m. every day to get his son dressed and take him to a special care 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,” Rodney told NPR.

During those days, Martin Pistorius learned to numb his mind. His thoughts were his only companion, and they weren’t kind to him. “No one will ever show me tenderness,” he thought. “No one will ever love me.”

Disengaging from his mind involved thinking of absolutely nothing, he told NPR. “You simply exist. It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish.”

But he couldn’t banish all of his thoughts. The popular TV show “Barney,” for example, aired on loop in the special care center where Pistorius’ father left him.

“I cannot even express to you how much I hated Barney,” Martin told NPR.

Pistorius later learned to reframe thoughts regarding statements like his mother’s.

“As time passed, I gradually learned to understand my mother’s desperation. Every time she looked at me, she could see only a cruel parody of the once-healthy child she had loved so much. ”

And, after Pistorius began feeling again, his physical movement and speech— just as his mind had so many years before— eventually revived.

Today, he is married to his wife, Joanna, and living in Britain.

Learn more about Pistorius’ story on his website or by reading his new book, “Ghost Boy.”

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