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Firefighter speaks 10 years after brain injury

Ten years after the roof of a burning house collapsed on him, Donald Herbert emerged from a state of muteness and apparent unawareness to speak intelligibly with family members.

“How long have I been away?” he asked. He thought it had only been for 3 months.

After the injury, Herbert was in a minimally conscious state for a time, then regressed and had essentially been in a vegetative state, with some fluctuations, since 1996.

His physician, Pakistan-born Jamil Ahmed, a rehabilitation specialist at the Erie County Medical Center, prescribed a cocktail of drugs, including compounds used to treat Parkinson’s disease, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and depression.

“The families should realize there is no 100 percent guarantee that this will work,” Dr. Ahmed said. “But there is hope.” He counsels patience, persistence, and willingness to try various combinations of drugs that are not specifically indicated and for which insurers will not pay. Before the dramatic breakthrough, Dr. Ahmed had been experimenting with various drugs and therapies for more than 2 years, at the urging of the patient’s wife.

After some setbacks, the patient is now talking and joking with his family and walking with assistance (Buffalo News, May 24, 2005, www.buffalonews.com).

While unusual, the firefighter’s case is not unique. In 2003, a man who had been mute for 19 years after a car crash suddenly began speaking, as did a police officer 8 years after a shooting left him paralyzed and mute.

One possible explanation is the treatment of unrecognized seizures, said Dr. James Bernat, a neurology professor at Dartmouth University. Another is the brain’s previously unappreciated capacity for self-repair, said Dr. Jack Parent, a neurology professor at the University of Michigan (LifeNews.com, May 6, 2005: www.lifenews.com/nat1322.html).

Additional information:

“Late Treatment of Severe Brain Injury with Hyperbaric Oxygenation,” Neubauer RA, Neubauer V, Gerstenbrand F. J Am Phys Surg 2005;10:58-59.

“The Perilous Vegetative State,” Huntoon LR. J Am Phys Surg 2005;10:35-36.

Affidavit of William Cheshire, M.D., neurologist, re: Terri Schiavo, March 24, 2005

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