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Waking Up After 10 Years in a Coma

  • Victoria Cavaliere

Nearly a decade after being left virtually speechless, a firefighter in Buffalo, New York, has suddenly started talking. Doctors are stunned, and trying to fully understand how the change came about.

Firefighter Donald Herbert rushed into a blazing apartment in Buffalo, New York, in 1995. The roof caved-in, crushing him and depriving him of oxygen for about six minutes. He was left virtually blind, unable to speak, and without memory, even of his loved ones.

Doctors expressed little optimism he would ever recover. New York University neurologist Dr. Orrin Devinski says people who recover from brain damage usually do so quickly.

"With the lack of improvement for a decade, the prognosis is terrible. It is essentially one in a million," says Dr. Devinski.

But Mr. Herbert defied the odds.

After nearly 10 years in a coma, he has suddenly started speaking again. Last week, he lucidly told staff at his nursing home that he wanted to talk to his wife.

What followed was 14 hours of emotional conversation with his family, including his son Nicolas, who was just three when his father was injured.

Experts are struggling to understand what happened.

The physician overseeing his care, Dr. Jamil Ahmed, says he had recently changed the combination of drugs Mr. Herbert takes. "I put him on medication that would not interact, and combined together I thought may make a difference," says Dr. Ahmed.

Mr. Herbert's wife Linda, says she is overwhelmed. "He has had several infrequent moments of lucidity, which has given us much hope for further recovery."

Doctors are also hoping for his full recovery. And, they hope to learn from his case in order to treat other brain-damaged patients.