Martin Pistorius, the Ghost Boy, Was in a Coma for 12 Years

News: Martin Pistorius spent twelve years of his life in a coma but was actually conscious most of that time.

Published Jan. 13, 2015

On 9 January 2015, NPR launched a new show called Invisibilia with a fascinating story about Martin Pistorius, a man who spent 12 years of his life in a mysterious coma:

It was the late '80s, and young Martin Pistorius, growing up in South Africa, was mostly thinking about electronics. Resistors and transistors and you name it. But at age 12, his life took an unexpected turn. He came down with a strange illness. The doctors weren't sure what it was, but their best guess was cryptococcal meningitis.

He got progressively worse. Eventually he lost his ability to move by himself, his ability to make eye contact, and then, finally, his ability to speak.

His parents, Rodney and Joan Pistorius, were told that he was as good as not there, a vegetable. The hospital told them to take him home and keep him comfortable until he died. But he didn't die. "Martin just kept going, just kept going," his mother says.

Although Martin Pistorius was not able to move on his own during the twelve years he spent in a coma between the ages of 12 and 26, he was conscious of his surroundings. Pistorius said he doesn't remember the first few years of his coma, but eventually his mind (if not the rest of his body) finally woke up:

"Yes, I was there, not from the very beginning, but about two years into my vegetative state, I began to wake up," says Martin, now age 39 and living in Harlow, England.

He thinks he began to wake up when he was 14 or 15 years old. "I was aware of everything, just like any normal person," Martin says.

But although he could see and understand everything, he couldn't move his body.

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

While the above-quoted article may be hard to believe, it was not the first report to explore the mysterious life of "the ghost boy": Martin and his wife Joan appeared on the British TV show The Wright Stuff in 2011, he gave an in-depth account of his experience to the Daily Mailin 2010, and he published a book titled Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body:

Martin Pistorious' story may sound far-fetched, but The National Institute of Neurological Orders and Stroke states "locked-in syndrome" is in fact a real disorder:

Locked-in syndrome is a rare neurological disorder characterized by complete paralysis of voluntary muscles in all parts of the body except for those that control eye movement. It may result from traumatic brain injury, diseases of the circulatory system, diseases that destroy the myelin sheath surrounding nerve cells, or medication overdose. Individuals with locked-in syndrome are conscious and can think and reason, but are unable to speak or move. The disorder leaves individuals completely mute and paralyzed. Communication may be possible with blinking eye movements.

Last updated:   13 January 2015

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