Coma patient, after 19 years, likes to talk


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Ark. - His mother believed that the son she knew was still there.

He was trapped, that's all. Trapped in a coma at first, then in a vegetative state for 19 years after a truck crash left him paralyzed.

Angilee Wallis knew her son, Terry, could hear the murmurs of love, feel the ties to his family and absorb the surroundings through his blank stare.

And then, almost miraculously, it happened. After nearly two years of treatment with an anti-depressant drug - a shot into the darkness and mystery of the brain - he spoke June 11.

"Mom," he said.

Now the words come in a torrent.

The tale of 39-year-old Terry Wallis has astonished the medical community of this one-stoplight town and reverberated worldwide.

He has emerged as a sort of modern-day Rip Van Winkle of the Ozarks. But this is no work of fiction. It's real life, heartwarming and heartbreaking.

For Terry Wallis, time stopped in July 1984, when Ronald Reagan was president and the Cold War dragged on.

He has missed so much, and not just world events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and two wars in the Persian Gulf. He has missed the deaths of two beloved grandparents; the fire that leveled his home and left nothing behind but a pear tree; and raising his daughter, Amber, who was 6 weeks old at the time of the crash.

She is now 19, grown up even as her father has silently grown older.

"He just does not believe it's 2003," said his sister, Tammy Baze.

But he is trying to learn. Step by step.

He has seen a cell phone and a laptop computer.

In the past few days, he has begun to read aloud. First, a sign that denoted his home since 1986: Stone County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Then a note from a niece: "I love you, Terry."

Thursday, he joked with one of his doctors, James Zini, the rehab center's medical director. They talked of Wallis' enjoyment of Pepsi and Fords. The second word he spoke was "Pepsi," his favorite drink.

What would Wallis do if given a Coke?

"I'd pour it out," he said, forming the words slowly.

The doctor, a bearded man with a soft voice, was on his knees so he could speak more easily with Wallis, who was in a wheelchair, his head cocked to the left, brown eyes darting, pillows beneath his arms and legs.

The doctor asked Wallis if he would like a telephone, and the patient said "yes."

"Who would you speak to?" the doctor asked.

"My grandma," Wallis said.

His grandmother, Ora Marshall, died three years ago. But Wallis can recall her telephone number.

"Are you proud of you?" the doctor asked.

"I am proud of me," Wallis replied.

And then, with a little encouragement from the doctor, Wallis uttered one of his favorite sayings. "I'd rather push a Ford," he said, "then ride in a Chevy."

His sister observed that Wallis didn't appear to react directly to the fact that he is paralyzed. "I don't think he realizes anything is wrong," she said.

Before the accident, Terry Wallis was tall and lean, a newlywed with a baby daughter. He enjoyed photography in school but dropped out in the 11th grade.

He loved cars, fixing them up and driving them fast. Wallis once took an old Ford with four stripped gears and drove it for a month in the one gear that worked: reverse.

On July 13, 1984, Wallis was in Chub Moore's red Chevy pickup truck on Arkansas Highway 74 near the Searcy County line.

The truck hit a guardrail, flipped over and landed 25 feet below in a dry creek bed, crushing the cab and throwing out two of the occupants.

Wallis and Moore, who were neighbors and friends, were critically injured. Moore died eight days after the accident. A third passenger survived without injury, Wallis' family said.

Wallis slipped into a coma that lasted three months. The blunt trauma left him with a brain stem injury.

He spent four months at St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Mo., and a year in a nursing home before he was moved to Mountain View, where he remained in what one doctor termed a vegetative state.

His parents, Angilee and Jerry Wallis, never gave up hope that he might recover. They are hard workers who carved out a farm on a hill overlooking Big Flat, a town of 150 people with two grocery stores and four churches.

When she saw her son after the accident, Angilee Wallis said, "The only thing you could see was a cut over his right eye and three stitches. He looked fine other than that."

Over the years, she said, "some people thought he didn't know what was going on. I felt like he knew more."

On every other weekend and at Christmas and Thanksgiving, they took their son home from the rehab center.

And they prayed for a miracle.

Wallis could eat. He could also communicate by grunting, his family said. "His eyes have been open for years," his mother said.

"He was in an unresponsive state and slowly became more responsive," Zini said.

Time and healing of the brain helped, his doctors said. But they don't have all the answers.

"It's a mystery and a miracle to me," Zini said.

Playing a role in the recovery was Paxil, an anti-depressant. Wallis' primary care physician, David Burnette, prescribed the medication about two years ago after a nurse, Mary Jo Pennington, asked if the patient might be depressed. Within two months, Burnette said he noticed that Wallis had improved.

"He began to smile, track people, especially nurses. That's when I knew we were successful," Burnette said.

But nothing could prepare the family or staff for what happened June 11. As was her habit over the years, a nursing aide asked Wallis, "Who is that woman?" - pointing to his mother. He said, "Mom."

"We were all surprised," Angilee Wallis said. "Even Terry was surprised. His eyes were kind of big." Over the next few days, he spoke other words, including "Dad" and "Pepsi."

His family asked him who was president. He said Reagan. A few weeks later, he admitted he didn't know who was president, a sign, the family said, that he might be coming to grips with the reality of his situation.

In the past few weeks, he has made stunning progress. But the family is uncertain how to reintroduce him to a changed world. His wife, Sandi, "is no longer in the picture," according to Wallis' parents.

The family and doctors don't want to get him overstimulated, preferring to bring him along slowly, at his own pace.

Paxil and prayer might have helped Terry Wallis, everyone said. But the doctors say something more was at work: the love of a family and the belief of a mother who refused to give up on her son.

On Friday, Angilee Wallis was at the rehab facility, joking with her son. As she fed him lunch, he wouldn't stop talking. Finally, with mock exasperation, she told him, "You don't talk for 19 years. Now, you don't shut up."

Bill Glauber is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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