At age 12, Martin Pistorius of Harlow, England, stopped talking. Slowly he lost his ability to walk and feed himself. Soon he was unable to make eye contact or communicate in any way; the child appeared to be in a vegetative state, and his parents were despondent. Physicians, although somewhat baffled, decided it was due to some type of meningitis and told his family to take him home and care for him the best way they could. After all, they said, the boy only had a short time left.
But the young man kept going … and going. And after about two years, Pistorius began to “wake up,” sensing images and hearing voices. His perception and mental faculties improved to nearly normal, but his body wouldn’t respond; he still couldn’t communicate that he was “back.” So, for 12 years, the young man lived imprisoned inside his body, trapped in front of a television running Barney re-runs for hours on end at a day care center.
“Have you ever seen one of those movies in which someone wakes up as a ghost but they don’t know that they’ve died?” Pastorius wrote in an article for the Daily Mail. “That’s how it was, as I realized people were looking through and around me. However much I tried to beg and plead, shout and scream, I couldn’t make them notice me.”
“I cannot even express to you how much I hated Barney,” he said.
He began to lose hope. “You simply exist. It’s a very dark place to find yourself because, in a sense, you are allowing yourself to vanish,” he explained to NPR. He recalled thinking, “No one will ever show me tenderness. No one will ever love me.”
Finally, one of his caretakers noticed that he was responding to stimuli. She urged doctors to retest him. Slowly, Pistorius regained the ability to move and communicate. With more treatment, he went on to college, got a job, wrote a book and got married. He’s even learning to drive.
Pistorius suffered from “locked-in syndrome,” resulting from lesions on the brain stem and characterized by continued awareness and intact cognitive functioning but complete physical and motor paralysis. There is no known cure, but prognosis is good when the disorder is recognized early on and proper medical care is given.
Read Pistorius’ incredible story in the 2013 memoir, The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body.