Between life and death. What does a person in a coma feel?

Michael Schumacher, Masha K onchalovskaya … tens of thousands of people after various emergency situations fall into a coma, that is, as if they hang between life and death.

For many years, scientists have been trying to understand what a person really feels in such a vegetative state and how to help him. Because it is almost impossible to contact the consciousness of these vegetable people, and the few people who come out of a coma, as a rule, prefer not to recall that state … And yet – what happens to these unfortunate people locked in their own bodies? Do they experience pain, fear? Do they understand who they are and what is going on around them? This is narrated by the BBC documentary “Coma”.

Already dead or still alive?

In Europe alone, 230,000 people fall into a coma annually. 30 thousand of them remain in this state for a long time, and sometimes forever. The number is huge. Yes, and growing from year to year – thanks to the latest in medicine. A sharp increase in the number of such patients ensued when two novelties created by scientists in the 20th century were tested – a defibrillator, which “stops” a stopped heart with electric discharges, and a mechanical ventilation device that can “breathe” instead of a patient. Thus, the concept sharply eroded: who should be considered dead, and whom – quite alive? And this is a huge ethical problem for doctors, relatives and friends of the patient and society as a whole.

December 19, 1999 26-year-old Canadian student Scott Rutleycollided at a crossroads with a police car chasing criminals. A promising young physicist suffered brain damage and fell into a deep coma. So he spent 12 years – until his death, resulting from the infection. Surely no one would remember his name if it were not for the persistence of Scott’s parents. All these years, having quit their jobs, they spent caring for their son. Every day we had long conversations with him, read books to him, turned on the television in the room. They were the first to notice certain rhythmic, albeit microscopic, finger movements when their son heard their favorite tunes. Scott, in their opinion, reacted particularly clearly to the arias from the musical The Phantom of the Opera. Parents so actively persuaded doctors to pay attention to this situation, that they gave up and invited a prominent neuroscientist for consultation Adrian Owen, Head of the Laboratory for Brain Injuries and Neurodegenerative Diseases, University of Western Ontario . He, albeit with a great deal of skepticism, agreed to check the patient’s brain function using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Agreed – and did not regret it! For the first time in history, scientists were able to establish real contact with someone who was locked in his body, but at the same time retained mental abilities.

“Does it hurt?”

“For years, I worked with patients in the gray zone between life and death,” the neuroscientist recalled this incident. “Therefore, he agreed to the experiment reluctantly: I had to disappoint relatives many times, confident that the patient was finally showing signs of life. In the case of Scott Rutley, I felt a special responsibility: my parents did not lose hope for so many years, they created all possible conditions for their son. It was hoped that he would not leave them without having communicated in the end. And I was incredibly happy when their expectations were rewarded. ”

The essence of the experiment is this: while the brain is illuminated by a tomograph, people are asked questions. Glow in a particular part of the brain proves that it has been activated, and this allows you to get answers. The scientist asked someone in a coma: “Scott, please imagine that you are playing tennis!” In response to the screen where the brain image was projected, spots began to light up. Contact has been established. After a series of simple questions and the obvious reaction that followed, Adrian asked, with parental permission: “Scott, does it hurt? If not, imagine how you play tennis again. ” Fortunately, the same spots appeared on the screen as after the first question.

This result was a comfort to many, many relatives of those who found themselves in the same position as Scott. The neurobiologist several times communicated with the physicist, but a few months after the first contact was established, the patient died, without leaving a coma, from infection.

This, by the way, is one of the most common causes of death of patients in a coma: a decrease in immunity is inevitable, as is a meeting with infections that always go to hospitals …

When you are terribly thirsty

You will say: why wait 12 years to conduct an experiment? The fact is that before that, scientists simply did not have any mechanisms and equipment to establish contact.

However, the first, albeit not so effective, but still contact with a patient in a coma was established in 1997 by David Menon, a physician of the intensive care unit who worked closely with Adrian Owen .

School teacher Kate Bainbridge fell into a coma due to inflammation in the brain, which became a complication after her viral infection. Inflammation eventually passed, but consciousness was still oppressed, and the woman fell into a coma. Doctors several times performed positron emission tomography and during the experiment found that Kate reacts to people’s faces.

This was an incredible breakthrough for science. Before this experiment, official science considered people who were in a vegetative state, hopeless. Before, such patients were most often not even tried to treat.

But tomography data prompted physicians to resume treatment. And after 6 months of intensive care, Kate … came to her senses.