It began like most other nights at the Lauret Nursing Home. The sound of my footsteps filled the stark, empty hallway as I did my rounds.
I had heard the orderlies refer to this area as the “vegetable patch” and their characterization wasn’t too far off. What may not be public knowledge is that coma patients oftentimes get sent to long term care facilities such as this regardless of age if they do not have any life threatening medical conditions (or hope of waking, for that matter). I glided past the rooms with my goal in sight.
As I neared his suite, my feet picked up their pace. I entered Bill Waters’ room and found his wife yet again at his side. I admired this woman greatly for her devotion to Bill. After nine long years, she was still his doting wife. Seeing her almost daily really touched my heart. This man must have been something special.
Recently, I had built a rapport with this woman and looked forward to seeing her kind face more than I care to admit. This made what I had planned for Bill much more difficult to keep a secret.
“You know visiting hours are over Mrs. Waters,” I said with a warm smile.
She paused before responding, “He’s in there, you know.”
“I’m sure he is,” I replied.
“No, I mean it. I can just sense his presence. When you’ve been with someone as long as we’ve been together, you just know. I wouldn’t come down here if…” A tear streamed down her face. I was mesmerized by how she hadn’t let go. That he was still very much a part of her.
I found myself gravitating towards him more so than the other sleepers. In fact, I developed a kind of obsession with him. His wife’s affection for her comatose husband was contagious. I had already decided that I was going to try something unorthodox with Bill. As a matter of fact, it was to begin the following day from my conversation with Martha that evening. Anxiety filled me with restless dreams that night and remained with me the following day.
You see, I had big plans for Bill. I had been under the same suspicion as his wife for quite some time.
Even though he had been declared a “vegetable” by my colleagues, there was just something about his magnanimous face that screamed otherwise. On a lark, I had already hooked him up to an fMRI and had seen some startling results. His brain activity was alive and manic. Though I was incredulous at first, it also seemed to indicate that he was capable of responding to my voice and answering simple questions on a strictly neurological level.
I had played this close to the chest and had not revealed this to anyone for two reasons. First, I guess you would call this the noble one, I wanted to be 100% certain that he was in fact still cognizant before filling his long suffering wife with any false hope. Second, I guess the narcissistic reason, as a neuroscientist at heart, I had stumbled across something potentially earth shattering. I really wanted to impress the medical community and the public at large with what I was planning.
Our facility had an fMRI machine which I had nearly unfettered access to at night. So, with Bill placed in the tube, I told him to think about a warm summer breeze. I checked the scans and told him to think about it again. The results were astonishingly similar. I spoke clearly and articulately that this means “yes.” That if he wants to answer “yes” to a question he was to think of that breeze.
“Do you understand?”
A flurry of brain activity followed. Not indicating the results I was looking for.
“Listen Bill, I really need you to focus. Think of a warm summer breeze. This means yes. Do you understand?”
The thought pattern appeared once more. A smile cracked across my face.
“Now, I want you to think about a bucket of ice water. I want you to imagine plunging your hand inside. I want you to really feel the cold Bill.”
The screen showed something wholly dissimilar to the previous command.
“Think about it again.” Same results.
“This is no.”
I had him practice yes and no for awhile. He caught on with astonishing speed. When I was satisfied with his ability to respond, I finally asked, “is your name Bill Waters?”
The results indicated yes. An even larger smile beamed from my face.
“Do you have a wife?”
“Do you have children?”
I was very concerned that I was going to receive another “yes” result. When I saw the neurological pattern emerge, my elation and admiration for this man grew tenfold. Then I asked a question I had been dreading.
“Are you in pain?”
My heart sank. The activity that I was seeing indicated this. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the existential anguish he was experiencing let alone the excruciating physical pain. A little piece of me died right there in that room. This only strengthened my determination to help this man in any way I could.
“Do you know where you are?”
“You are in a care facility in Rashosha, WI. Is that correct?”
I tried again, simplifying the question, “Are you in a care facility?”
Confusion set in. I surmised that I was admiring his progress so much that I had failed to realize the strain I was putting on him. I backed off for that day and kept my findings to myself. He was in no danger of going anywhere, and there were many more tests to run before I could make this stunning revelation public.
In my bed that evening, I came up with an ambitious course of action. This was going to take a lot of time and effort, but I was confident I could get results.
The next day I revealed my plan to Bill. With my knowledge of neurological signatures, I came up with 26 distinct thought patterns that would be easy to distinguish in fMRI results (The letter A is jumping into a pile of sand, B is rubbing your fingers on a brillo pad, etc.). Each one would represent a letter of the alphabet.
“This is going to be a long and painstaking process that is going to require a lot of patience. Do you want to continue?”
So with time and care we began to work on learning the “alphabet.” Progress was more rapid than I ever could have imagined. Bill was an excellent student.
I will never, ever forget when we had nailed down the letter I (I believe it was thinking about your bare foot entering a leather shoe). His brain lit up like a livewire. This is what he was telling me over and over again.
My heart exploded with jubilation. I never could imagine that someone simply communicating “hi” to me would fill me with such raw emotion. Strangely, in that moment I felt closer to Bill than I had ever felt to another human being. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Well, hi Bill!”
The next day, I placed him in the tube again. This is the first thing he “said” to me.
His excitement was palpable. I was touched yet again. However, we were so close to completing the “alphabet”, I firmly stated that we needed to focus. I told him to concentrate on the task at hand. We continued our work that week and made significant progress.
I went to bed that Monday with a smile on my face and an unparalleled feeling of contentment and accomplishment. This would all come crashing down the following day.
“So Bill. Let’s talk.”
hihi o god hel hihi
“Hi Bill. Now concentrate for a second. What is your name?” I waited patiently as Bill’s brain went to work.
Bil o god hel
“Great job Bill! What is your wife’s name?”
Martha hihihi help
“Where are you now?”
My heart skipped a beat. I double checked the results. That’s what it translated to.
“No, you are in a long term care facility. You are in a coma. Do you understand?”
The image I had picked for L was driving on a Sunday afternoon through the country. To think that such a placid image could be imparting such an unsettling message sent shivers up and down my spine.
I left the room briefly to calm my nerves and also to give Bill a break. As I returned, I could see Bill was still “talking.”
sae me so hot hihihihi help.
“Bill, p-please calm down,” I stammered. “You’re in a hospital. You’re fine. I’m here. It’ll be okay.”
no hel forver in helll.
For the first time in a while I was feeling helpless. Bill’s brain activity was crushing my heart. With all of the hard work and time we had spent together, I was beyond attached to him. My emotions ran high. It was unprofessional and spur of the moment, but I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.
“Bill, just wake up!” The emotion in that cry startled me. I had simply become too invested at this point. While these thoughts were rushing through my head, Bill’s brain began to react again. I looked at the results.
no wont be me
“What?” I asked almost at my wit’s end.
will be Otch demon nme Otch
Fear seized me. At this point, I began to question my abilities to interpret these readings. However, after double checking everything, the message was loud and clear so to speak.
“It’ll be alright Bill. I’m here. It’ll be alright,” I assured him repeatedly.
no hel eternal
Disturbed to my core. I went home that night and attempted to sleep, but slumber refused to find me.
After hanging up the phone, I hightailed it to the nursing home. I didn’t care about the hour. I had to see it with my own two eyes right then and there. Bill was awake and talking! A fucking medical miracle!
I entered the room and saw Martha cradling her husband. The unparalleled joy I was expecting in my heart was tempered by Bill’s icy glare. As I introduced myself, his eyes trained on me. They exuded none of the warmth I had envisioned they would. They were cold and calculating. He frowned at me and didn’t accept my hand. Fair enough, he was still recovering, and I didn’t take his current state as a personal slight at the time. I looked at Martha as she continued to grasp onto her husband.The smile on her face refused to leave even as Bill was clearly recoiling from her touch.
The next day I revealed what I had done. I made my results (save for the last session) public. I was lauded as a hero and received the accolades I was expecting. However, it all felt empty. Bill wanted no part of this and remained aloof and indifferent towards me. At first, I was worried that he thought I had exploited him, but this didn’t seem to be the case.
As soon as I heard about his miraculous recovery, I couldn’t wait to start a friendship with him. However, the guy just wanted nothing to do with me. With a now indelible frown hanging on his face. He rebuffed any opportunities for future research. He even refused to meet up for coffee which hurt immensely.
This all culminated with a conversation I had with Bill’s wife three weeks ago.
She entered my office looking weak and haggered. She had aged what would seem like a decade in the intervening weeks since I last saw her. Before I could posit a greeting, she said, “it isn’t him.”
“He isn’t my husband. My husband was a kind and gentle man always with the warmest smile on his face, but this guy, this thing…” she trailed off as she began to weep. I embraced her while having to choke back my own tears in the process.
“Listen, Martha. He’s been through a lot. Many patients that recover from a comatose state experience personality shifts and abnormalities in behavior. Just have patience. He’ll be the Bill you have always loved. Just give it time.” I said this with conviction, but didn’t believe a word of it. Something really was amiss. There was no denying it.
“Just give it time Martha,” I said once more.
Unfortunately, time was something Martha didn’t have.
As I enter the visiting area of the jail, I pick up the phone. Staring back at me from the other side of the glass is a face that had once filled me with such hope. Now, I can barely look upon this homicidal monster without feeling physically ill.
Jesus, what he did to Martha. The way they found her…
A scowl hangs below his glaring and wanton eyes. They are trained on me with a ferocious intensity. He picks up the phone.
“…Otch?” I say with trepidation. My rational mind barely allows that word to escape my lips.
A hint of light gleams in his eyes. His frown turns upwards into a nauseating smirk. This transforms his face into a visage of pure, unadulterated evil. I have to fight to not avert my gaze.
With a wink, he finally speaks to me.
“Greetings, Dr. Williams. Bill says… hi.”