Writer Emily Gordon was a carefree, tattooed 27-year-old living in Chicago in 2007 when she came down with what she thought was a garden-variety cold. (Getty Images)
“I reacted how I always did when my body behaved in a way I found unpalatable: I ignored it,” the Carmichael Show writer and Comedy Central producer writes in an essay for Lena Dunham’s new email newsletter, Lenny.
But the “cold” wasn’t having it. Although she soldiered through work, dance classes, and dates, it did not clear up, prompting her to visit a local clinic. From there, Gordon was rushed immediately to the hospital for life-threatening respiratory distress and placed in a medically induced coma.
“My vitals were unstable,” Gordon explains. “I didn’t leave the hospital for almost a month. I had lung surgery. I was under for about 12 days, and I emerged dotted and crisscrossed with scars.”
Gordon’s piece explores what it’s like to enter a coma and come out the other side — which is still mysterious to doctors and researchers, according to neurointensivist Stephan Mayer, MD, director of neurocritical care at Mount Sinai Health System, who works regularly with coma patients.
“She suffered a near-death experience and does correctly make the distinction that she was in a medically induced coma,” he tells Yahoo Health. “It is very much a hazy, netherworld-like experience.”
Here are more insights from life inside, and just beyond, the coma.
What happens in the brain
A medically induced coma is different from one caused by a trauma. With prolonged unconsciousness after a stroke, infection, or lack of oxygen, the brain is shutting down — and will experience a total “reboot,” slowly learning new skills and responses over time.
A coma like Gordon’s is induced to slow and protect the brain as illness progresses and options begin to dwindle. “Doctors are basically putting you on a partial, prolonged anesthesia,” says Mayer. “In this case, she was under for just about two weeks.”
During that time, you’re not awake but your brain is still registering its surroundings in fits and bursts. Patients often report details and strange thoughts while under. Gordon doesn’t remember doctors inducing her coma, but describes the experience as “one long, rambling dream.” She recalls bright lights, nurses speaking in medical terms, and that her boyfriend was wearing glasses (a rarity in public).
“At one point, I became convinced that I was locked in a facility against my will and started plotting my escape,” Gordon says. “My main oppressor was a male nurse with hands made out of Jolly Ranchers, which in reality was probably the sticky surgical tape that was all over me, keeping all my monitors in place. It’s fascinating what the mind will do to make sense out of confusion.”
Mayer says this type of experience is very common in medically induced comas. “What happens is that you have glimpses of awareness,” he explains. “It’s sort of like an old TV with static. It’s just lots of fuzz until the picture comes on for just a minute — and then, boom, gone again. What you end up with is a collection of disjointed, disconnected glimmers of awareness.”
The brain is always grasping for a narrative, says Mayer, even when it’s only in a partially conscious state.
What happens to the body
While the body isn’t in a state of total shutdown during the days it’s under, men and women who come out of comas often experience physical setbacks. While two weeks doesn’t sound like a long time in the scheme of things, it’s an eternity for the body to remain completely sedentary. “My muscles atrophied to the point where I couldn’t hold a cell phone,” Gordon writes. “I had to strengthen my muscles enough to walk again. I had to sit down in the shower.”
Mayer says muscles “rapidly melt away” from the stress on the body and the immobilization. “What we see is something called post-[intensive] care syndrome,” he says. “Being so stressed and ill really weakens the nervous system, so cognition and strength are the biggest issues.”
In the past, the metric for success in coma cases was based solely on life and death. “We’ve come a long way now with the technology, so the metric is now more based on issues with cognition — and we have no idea about the neurobiology while in the coma,” Mayer says. “We’re just beginning to understand what’s happening in the brain.”
There are theories. Mayer says some early research is looking at a possible “inflammatory response” in the brain during a coma, where greater systemic inflammation can lead to more cognitive issues when a patient finally makes it through to the other side.
What happens after
Gordon says that her coma changed her — both immediately and down the line. “From the vantage point of my hospital bed, looking down at this poor, tortured object covered in wires and scars, I was saddened at how much it had been abused,” she writes. “This wasn’t a sex-delivery system that was either hot or chubby or perfect or pale — this was the collection of bones and muscles and organs that carried around my brain and my heart. It took being introduced to my body as an actual object, an object I had to become reacquainted with, for me to understand the worth of my physical form.”
While Gordon says her very first instinct was to harden herself, not allowing the coma to affect her life or goals, she admits, “Of course I changed.” It’s helped her face career anxieties about putting her work out there and make gutsier life decisions she might have avoided before suffering a near-death experience. “I became so fearless that I married my boyfriend in a manic haze three months after getting out of the hospital,” she says. “We’ve been together eight years now.”
Mayer says that, by and large, he’s seen his patients come out of comas appreciating life far more. He says he’s observed that even those who have “life-shaking” setbacks after strokes or brain aneurysms, like severe neurological damage, appreciate life more — something he calls My Stroke of Insight Syndrome.
“A near-death experience like a coma gets you off your bulls***,” Mayer says. “It helps you appreciate life, because you almost lost it all. Most of us spend all our time ignoring the reality that we are mortal beings — but if you actually spend regular time contemplating your mortality, you will be happier. You will appreciate every moment as precious.”
Mere months after her wedding, Gordon moved to New York City with her husband — being a New Yorker was her dream, becoming a standup comic was his. They had little money and no long-term plan. It was simply a leap.
“The old me would have been watching all of it happen from afar, quick with witty retorts about how poor we were,” she writes. “The new me was firmly in my body, experiencing it.”
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