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Brain-Damaged Victim Regains Speech After Almost 20 Years

He has been called a 'medical miracle.' A 42-year-old man from the southern state of Arkansas has regained some ability to speak and move after 19 years of being in what doctors call a state of 'minimal consciousness'.

Terry Wallis was 16 years old in 1984 when his car veered across the road and dropped 15 meters [50 feet] into a riverbed. He defied the odds by coming out alive. But he had significant brain damage and was unable to speak or move. He lived in a nursing home for years.

Terry Wallis began speaking again in 2003. His mother, Angilee Wallis, says she was amazed when he spoke. "He just said 'Mom.' His eyes opened wide, you know, and then said it again. That was just marvelous."

Neurologist Nicholas Schiff says there has been improvement since then. "He was able to grunt, but only inconsistently. Now he can talk to you. He can joke. He can tell you how to fix a Chevy engine."

Medical experts say the odds of Terry Wallis' recovery were one in 300 million. Brain images show that most of his normal nerve connections were destroyed in the accident. But Terry Wallis' brain has grown new connections in a less damaged area. There has recently been new growth in the part of the brain that controls movement.

Doctors hope they have learned things from this case that will help others.

Dr. Michael Williams of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine says patients must be at least minimally conscious. Those in a permanent vegetative condition are not likely to see change. "We would hope that we could develop ways to help the brain recover along those lines. All we know now is that it can happen."

The Wallis family says Terry has continued to get better. And while no one knows how much more improvement he will show, he has already beaten incredible odds.