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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


In a Coma: Alive Or Just Breathing?

Dr. Nicholis Shift visited Stony Brook University on March 15 and gave a free seminar open to all students. The associate professor of neurology from Cornell  University discussed his extensive research into the  recovery of some patients from a comatose state.

His presentation included a chart outlining the different levels of  an unconscious state, and delicately noted a case  he  has put effort into researching, the case of the recovery of Donald Herbert.

Fireman Donald Herbert, while responding to a call, ran into a building, which collapsed on him and caused trauma to his brain. This left him comatose.

What made this case  interesting to Shift was that eventually Herbert had awoken from his coma with some motor activity and signs of cognitive function. However he soon regressed back into a minimally conscious state.

Soon, however, he again had a recovery and had most of his cognitive activity restored. He  spoke fluently, and remembered  his old buddies.

The surprising recovery was so fast that a nurse took a camcorder and videotaped it so that his family could catch all that happened before they would have arrived to witness the miracle themselves. The video shows Herbert remembering every one of his friends and his wife, except for his child who was only a toddler at the time of his father’s incident.

Now a decade later,  Herbert has recovered. Shift notes the Terri Schiavo case and its difference to Herbert’s.

The difference between both cases is that Schiavo had no function or metabolism occurring in her upper brain, which led Shift to the next part of his lecture.

From this point on Shift explained the scientific research he has been doing and a new technique of MRI imaging that is gaining popularity in the medical world.

“Tennis” is a form of communication between doctors and a patient in a comatose state.

The doctor will ask the patient to imagine that he or she is playing  a game of tennis. The MRI then can show  different parts of the brain lighting up in response to the doctors speech. Many variations of the game can be played as well.

The doctor can tell a patient to imagine swimming if the patient was a swimmer or the doctor can have a simple yes or no conversation with a patient, all leading to the  conclusion that the patient –  even though in a comatose state – is not mentally dead.  Shift’s research also involves the drug Ambien, which, for reasons still unknown, restores metabolism in the upper parts of the brain.

It sometimes allows patients to recover from a minimally conscious state, which includes the regaining of cognitive function and some speech.

Shift spoke of actual cases where Ambien was giving to a patient to put him or her at ease, and unexpectedly the patient started talking or showed some sign of communication and awareness of his or her surroundings.

This lecture gave Stony Brook students insight into this field and served to show us that the human body is an amazing machine that is still very capable of surprising us.

I believe that the patients even in their dormant sleep were still thinking and calculating thoughts of survival and return to their loved ones.

We should give humanity more credit and never give up hope on any patient.

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