Gut Check: Making simple sense out of life
By Lenore Skomal Erie Times-News staff blogger
Lenore Skomal is an award-winning author and veteran journalist in all forms of media. She is a weekly columnist and daily blogger for the Erie Times-News. She’s authored 17 published books, including an anthology of her columns, Burnt Toast available on her website www.lenoreskomal.net.   Read more about this blog.
Posted: May 17th, 2013
Can those in a coma hear us?

It’s the pivotal question that launched BLUFF. Not a revolutionary or new question, but one that persists and is debated in the medical community, for one, and the world at large.

In doing the research for BLUFF, I spoke to many physicians and caregivers, and my straw poll indicates the group was evenly divided. While most doctors acquiesce that they don’t rightly know, their druthers list toward the “no, not likely.”

While my mother wasn’t in a coma, technically, she was in a deep, morphine sleep toward the end of her life, thanks to a losing battle with bone cancer. She drifted in and out of long periods of consciousness, and it had me wondering, perhaps obsessively so, about what exactly she was aware of. Her primary care doctors were sensitive about not talking about her condition in front of her, even when she was snoring. I appreciate this more than they will ever know. There was a level of respect that I bow to.

After I wrote BLUFF, an in-law of mine was admitted to the hospital and kept in a medical coma for a month. When I asked him about it later, he wasn’t comfortable discussing it, other than to say, “I don’t remember a thing.”

Others who have come out of comas have had similar responses. But they are not the norm. Actually, there are those documented cases of coma patients who do remember and can even recall the offhand words of a careless doctor or insensitive nurse telling loved ones that they’ll never come out of it. Those cases are what keep the right to life movement fueled, especially in desperate cases where there is no hope. Oddly, however, there are no numbers to prove the case either way.

By creating this dilemma for my protagonist, I wanted to push the envelope and explore not just the idea that a comatose patient could hear, but much more. I wanted to know what it might be like to be trapped in one’s body, with no visible means of communication. And not just be trapped, but forced to face the decisions you’ve made and live with those outcomes while not being able to defend or explain yourself. My protagonist, Jude Black, finds herself in that position. And as she lies there, immobile, some strange things happen. One of them is that she actually finds herself communicating and developing a friendship with someone she loathed in her waking life.

As with most of my writing, this unusual outcome underscores something much larger and pervasive—a human frailty—basically, our tendency to judge one another. When everything is stripped away—social setting, class-consciousness, petty differences, toxic gossip—sometimes that’s enough to truly see someone. And find a commonality that can create a relationship, a bond. I played with this theme in the book, and I think you will agree that the unlikely friendship that transpires between Jude and Mary Shannon is not just poignant; it’s heartfelt and true.

To be certain, the question about just what someone in a coma can experience won’t be answered definitively by BLUFF or by me, that is unless I find myself in a hospital bed one day in a persistent vegetative state.

And if that happens my friends, you can rest assured—I will write about it.

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