In 2003, an auto mechanic from Arkansas named Terry
Wallis rocked the scientific community when he reemerged from
a vegetative state after 19 years. Some people have cited cases
like this as ample reason to champion the rights of brain dead.
The same thing, they argue, could have happened to Terry Schiavo.
They are wrong.
The media furor surrounding the Schiavo incident tended to
tar all cases of brain damage with the same brush. The truth
is, not all vegetative states are alike. Neurologists have
spent decades exploring and cataloging the various gradations
of human consciousness. In reality, when Terry began to talk,
he was not in a vegetative state, but a new classification
of arousal documented in 2002 and referred to as minimally
In contrast to Schiavo's permanent vegetative state, in which
there is no awareness of self, others, or the environment,
the minimally conscious are intermittently aware. Some of
them make alarming recoveries once they cross the threshold
of consciousness. Today - with the help of people like Terry
Wallis - they stand poised to unlock one of the longest-sealed
gateways in human history: the doorway to consciousness.
* * *
On July 13th, 1984, Terry Wallis and two of his closes friends
went driving through the Ozark Mountains in their home state
of Arkansas. No one knows precisely why, but their truck lost
control on a back woods road and spun out. Ramping a guardrail
backwards, it slalomed into a gully, shot down a slope and
plunged over the face of a cliff. The truck arced through
the air and began to drop. Seconds later, it impacted with
the packed gravel and jagged stones of a dried-up river bed
more than thirty feet below.
Terry was twenty years old - a lanky, black-haired, fun-loving
self-proclaimed hillbilly. When he didn't have half his body
stuck under the hood of a car, he was a laughing, dancing,
howling Southern sensation. He had his whole life ahead of
him. He and his wife Sandi had just welcomed their first child,
Amber - six weeks old. But the crash delivered a massive blow
to Terry's head. By the time rescuers were able to pull him
from the gorge, he had already slipped into a coma.
He was Medevaced to a nearby hospital where he lay in bed,
silent and still for the next three months. His family stood
beside him, waiting. Apart from the head trauma and some minor
contusions, Terry was physically fine. Much luckier, say,
than Chubb Lowell - one of the passengers in the truck; Lowell
passed away a week after the accident from severe spinal injuries.
In Terry's case, doctors issued a cautious preliminary statement:
if he emerged from his coma, he had a pretty good chance of
recuperating. But would he snap out of it?
The answer came in October of 1984. Terry opened his eyes
on his own; he had broken free of the coma. But the doctors'
worst fears had been realized. The blow to Terry's head had
severely damaged his brain. He was now a vegetative quadriplegic.
Terry's condition confused his family. At times, for instance,
he appeared alert; he could grunt and fidget as if irritated
with his confinement in bed. His eyes sometimes tracked people
who entered his room and he often appeared to understand what
was going on around him. If his food was liquefied and spooned
into his mouth, he could eat well enough. There were glimpses,
in other words, that Terry was still "in there." The family
bolstered their hopes.
But doctors cautioned the Wallis'. These reactions, they said,
were pure illusion. Terry's "responses" were nothing more than
behavior hiccups, leftover neurological impulses from a once-healthy
brain. Ghosts in a broken-down machine. No matter how convincingly
Terry seemed to "be there" every now and then, he was - in fact
- utterly incapable of cognition. The doctors made themselves
very clear on this point: the man the Wallis' had once known
as a loving husband and son was gone.
Furthermore, the medical community assured the Wallis' that
any attempts at rehabilitating their son would prove useless.
Terry was therefore placed in a nursing home where he received
Attendants sponge-bathed Terry, fed him, and changed his diapers
on a clockwork schedule. They often left the radio on in his
room in case he might like to hear country music. They rolled
his body every two hours to keep him from developing bedsores
and they talked to him - perhaps more for their own benefit
than for his.
* * *
The Wallis' never accepted the doctors' diagnosis of Terry's
condition. In particular, Angilee Wallis - Terry's mother
- refused to believe that her son was "gone." Every time she
looked her baby in the eyes, she saw something that convinced
her that he could hear and understand her. Something in his
face convinced her that Terry was alive and well and wanted
desperately to speak.
"I can't explain why I knew that," she says now, twenty years
later. "I just knew it. Right from the start, I always knew.
I guess that's why we started doing what we did."
The Wallis' made a bold decision. In spite of Terry's injury,
they decided to incorporate him into traditional family activities
as if nothing had ever happened.
A quick flip through the Wallis family photo album will tell
you how unusual this decision was. There's Terry in every
single Christmas picture, year after year. He's propped up
in the corner with a Santa Claus cap on his head, staring
straight into the lens with his wide-eyed, gape-mouthed vacant
expression while family and friends throw their arms around
him and laugh and joke and share eggnog. There he is, too,
sitting at the head of every Thanksgiving table, even though
he couldn't eat the turkey; Terry's food had to be pureed
in a blender before he could swallow it. There are photos
of Terry fishing down by the lake - his father, Jerry, would
take him down to lip of the water, prop him up in an old folding
chair, and wrap his paralyzed fingers around the haft of a
rod and reel . . .
The pictures in the album almost seem like some bizarre expose
of concept photography. But they're not. This was the life
the Wallis' chose for themselves and for their son.
If any of the events documented in the photos meant anything
at all to Terry, he certainly kept mum about it. True to form,
he never uttered a word. Now and then he might grunt and tense
his muscles, arching his back and pursing his lips as if he
were desperately attempting to shape a word with his mouth.
But his condition never changed.
For Terry's parents and siblings, however, those times spent
together as a family made all the difference in the world.
They each attest to how the decision to include Terry in family
matters kept them all together through some of the hardest
emotional turmoil they'd ever known.
Or rather, it kept some of them together. Six months after
Terry's accident, his wife Sandi buckled under the strain
and disappeared. She took baby Amber with her and left behind
a note for Angilee, apologizing for her lack of fortitude.
"I still care about Terry but I've got to go on with my life.
I have to find someone who will give Amber a good home. If
you want I'll file for a divorce but all I want is to not
have any trouble . . . "
* * *
Nineteen years went by. The Wallis' acclimated to life with
Terry. As unusual and demanding as his special needs were, they
became just another part of the routine. The Wallis' come from
rock-solid stock. Their great-grandfathers and grandfathers
tore the Ozarks from the iron grip of the Choctaw nation, scratched
crops from the brown dirt and managed to weather out the Great
Depression. They are hardworking folks, indeed - mountain folks.
No sacrifice is too great for one of their own. They didn't
waste much time on self-pity.
"We just treated Terry like he always was. Just another fun-loving
hillbilly in a family full of hillbillies," says Angilee.
"I don't know nothing about medicine. But maybe that's why
things happened the way they did."
Almost exactly nineteen years to the day he'd been declared
officially brain-dead - a miracle happened. Terry Wallis "woke
* * *
His first words caught Angilee completely by surprise. Terry
said, "Mom." Angilee nearly fainted.
The next word he said was "Pam," the name of his longtime nurse.
After that, Terry's vocabulary began to expand at an incredible
rate. He was soon speaking in full sentences - joking, laughing,
wondering what had happened. Sometimes he babbled on and on
about nothing in particular. On other matters, notably the
details of his accident, he remained utterly silent.
At first, no one knew why and, truthfully, no one cared. The
incontrovertible fact of the matter was clear: a miracle had
happened. Terry Wallis had returned.
In itself, this would make for a great story. But in many
ways, it's just the tip of the iceberg. In very short order,
Terry Wallis would shake the foundations of science, causing
neurologists around the world to revise their notions on how
the human brain functions.