Wayne jumped out of bed and raced down to the driveway, where he knelt over his son’s limp frame and tried frantically to elicit a breath or a heartbeat. As he pumped Chris’s chest and scooped out the vomit that had collected in his mouth, Judy ran to the kitchen and steadied herself long enough to call for an ambulance.
Chris was 26. He had not been well. An A.T.V. accident the previous August left him with debilitating back pain that physical therapy did nothing to alleviate. His doctor had recently prescribed Oxycontin. His parents learned later that he had taken too much.
By the time the ambulance arrived, Chris’s heart had been still for at least 15 minutes. It took the paramedics another 15 to get it pumping again; even then, doctors had little hope he would survive. Brain cells begin dying off just five minutes after blood stops delivering oxygen. After 30 minutes, there is likely to be more dead tissue than living.
Nonetheless, the emergency-room staff members at the local hospital did their best. They hooked Chris up to a tangle of tubes and machines and injected him with drugs to stabilize his heart rate. Wayne and Judy watched helplessly from the hallway. After four hours, a doctor finally summoned them to a secluded corridor.
Chris was in a coma, the doctor said, and in all likelihood had suffered severe, irreversible brain damage. He was breathing only with the help of a ventilator and would probably have a series of heart attacks in the night.
“First they asked us to let them pull the plug,” Judy recalled one recent afternoon, as we sat in the living room of the Coxes’ house in a Memphis suburb. “Then they tried getting us to sign a do-not-resuscitate order.” Without one, the doctor explained, hospital staff would be forced to revive Chris each time he started slipping away, which could mean cracking his ribs and shocking him with electricity. Even if they managed to keep his body alive, what was left of his brain would surely die in the days ahead.
Wayne and Judy refused to sign. “This is not some dog we’re talking about putting down,” Wayne shouted. “This is our son.” Chris still lived with his parents. He was a good kid, a joker, but bashful, especially around girls. He liked playing basketball and fishing in the pond near his house. He was planning to take over the family repo business when Wayne retired in a few years. Before the A.T.V. accident, he’d never given them much trouble at all. He deserved every chance the hospital could give him.
The heart attacks never came. Four days later, Chris woke up.
It was not the awakening of Hollywood movies in which the patient comes to, just as he was, speaking full sentences and completely mobile. Three years later, Chris still cannot talk. Although he breathes on his own, his lungs battle a steady barrage of infections; a feeding tube provides all his sustenance, and his muscles have contracted into short, twisted knots. He can move only the slightest bit — his fingers and eyelids twitch, but his arms and legs remain mostly immobile — and his neck is not quite strong enough to hold up his head, which leans against a crescent-shaped support around his wheelchair headrest.
Still, Wayne and Judy say that his cognition is improving. On good days, they say, he can respond to basic commands — blink his eyes for yes, wiggle his finger for no, give a thumbs up when asked. Doctors agree that Chris has progressed beyond a vegetative state, to a hazy realm known as minimal consciousness. What that means — what it says about his experience of the world around him or his prospects for further recovery — is something they are still trying to figure out.
This is full of “what the…….?”