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Awakening From 16 Years in Near-Coma

Health: Woman who entered vegetative state during childbirth begins long road to rehabilitation after regaining consciousness. Family, including son she had never seen, is overwhelmed.

February 03, 2000|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 16 years, Patricia White Bull lay in a near-coma, eyes open but recognizing nothing, as a result of complications from the birth of her son.

Then, inexplicably, the mother of four emerged from her deep sleep Dec. 21 to tell a nurse, who was adjusting blankets on her bed at a long-term care facility in Albuquerque, "Don't do that!"

"Now, her eyes are alive," her grateful mother, Snowflake Flower, said Wednesday.

Flower and specialists at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in Downey met with reporters Wednesday to talk about the rehabilitation work that lies ahead.

White Bull, a member of the Cochiti Pueblo tribe, was brought to the nationally known facility in Downey for six to eight weeks of treatment. Because of concern expressed by family members, she did not meet with reporters.

The therapy will concentrate on the basics, officials said. Dr. Ginte Jasulaitis, a senior Rancho Los Amigos physician and neurologist, said the ability to communicate, verbally or through hand signals, will be a top priority.

"We'd like her to let people know how she's feeling and what she needs," Jasulaitis said.

Personal care will be another. Combing her hair, brushing her teeth and learning to eat again will be challenges for her, clinical social worker Greg Thompson said.

"It'll be like starting all over again," he said, "trying to do something that's new to her."

Even the process of trusting the Rancho Los Amigos staff will be new for her. "That's stuff we take for granted," he said.

Twenty-four-hour care is expected to be necessary once White Bull returns to New Mexico, but the rehab work in Downey is an important beginning.

Jasulaitis and other Rancho Los Amigos officials admitted that there isn't a lot of information about what to do when someone comes out of a years-long coma.

"It's so unusual that you can't find studies on this," she said.

But there have been similar cases. In Gary, Ind., a police officer who had been shot in the forehead emerged from a coma 7 1/2 years later. And a Canadian woman fell into a coma at the age of 50 in 1963 and awoke nearly 30 years later.

As in the other cases, the doctors at Rancho Los Amigos couldn't explain why or how White Bull woke up.

Perhaps it was a medication, amantadine, that was given to her just days earlier. Or, perhaps it was a miracle steeped in Native American traditions. No matter, said Flower and White Bull's younger sister, Rachel Rhoades. They were just happy it happened.

"She gave me the best birthday and Merry Christmas present I could get," said Flower, who celebrated her 68th birthday a few days before her daughter awoke.

Rhoades said she cried and cried at the news.

"When I was a little girl," Rhoades said, she and her older sister "used to ride horses; she'd do my hair and she'd make me beads."

White Bull's four children, including 16-year-old Mark Jr., arrived at her bedside when they learned she had awakened. The occasion was particularly emotional for Mark, who only began visiting his mother at the age of 10.

"He finally met a person he had seen before but never knew," Flower said. "He cried, too."

Officials in New Mexico said the coma was caused by a blood clot that lodged in White Bull's lung during a Caesarean section, cutting off oxygen to the brain and causing her heart to stop. She was revived, but never responded to pain or noise and never communicated. She was fed through a tube in her stomach.

Flower and Rhoades said White Bull hasn't asked many questions about how the world has changed in the past 16 years. Nor has she expressed any sentiment at the news that her husband, Mark White Bull, divorced her and remarried.

However, there's at least one worldly passion that has remained with White Bull.

She's an ardent football fan. She watched last Sunday's Super Bowl game between the St. Louis Rams and the Tennessee Titans in her hospital room with her mother and younger sister. "She was rooting for the Titans [who lost]," Flower said.

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