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 conscious.

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 Wallis

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 constant care.

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.

Terry Wallis

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.

Terry Wallis

"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 up."

* * *


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.
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