As a nursing student, I remember my instructors encouraging us to speak to comatose patients. That thought was always in the back of my mind when I worked as an intensive-care nurse at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
One particular patient stands out clearly in my memory. His name was Charlie, and he had been in a coma for several weeks. I took care of Charlie almost daily. I was with him so often that I felt strange if I wasn't talking to him.
Many research articles have been written about whether patients in a coma hear people talking to them. According to studies, hearing is the last sense to go when a person becomes unconscious. Other studies have found that after regaining consciousness, some patients report that they heard and understood various conversations that took place while they were unconscious.
While in Charlie's room doing his daily care, I would talk to him about the weather or the daily news, or mention a movie I saw. Sometimes I teased him about what I had had for dinner the night before, comparing it to the delicious tube feedings he was receiving for dinner. I even sang along to the radio that his wife left tuned to his favorite radio station.
One day after completing his morning care, I turned Charlie on his side facing away from me. I continued going about my work while talking to him. I joked that it was not polite to have your back to someone when being spoken to. Well, you can imagine my amazement when Charlie turned his head to look at me.
Why he chose that moment to wake up, I will never know for certain. But maybe he really didn't want to appear rude having his back toward the person who was speaking to him, and what I said struck a chord.
Over the next few weeks, Charlie continued to improve. He was moved out of the ICU and eventually went home. Several months later, a man and his wife stopped by the ICU to visit. It was Charlie.
I did not recognize him. He had put on weight and looked so different from the unconscious man in the hospital bed. He had stopped by to thank all the nurses who cared for him while in the ICU.
Charlie told us that he had vague memories of hearing his name called and of people talking and singing, and even music on the radio playing while he was unconscious. His wife jokingly said it was the angels coming for him, but because he was so ornery, they didn't want him. We all laughed, but I had finally gotten my answer about whether coma patients can hear.
This experience reinforced for me that what I do every day for my patients makes a difference. I know I was not the only nurse who took care of Charlie, talked to him or sang along to the radio. But I smile every time I think that Charlie woke up on my shift.
Lynn Heiderman now works as a nurse at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.