Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Man speaks first words after 19-year coma

CHANGED WORLD At the time of the accident that left Terry Wallis comatose, the Berlin Wall was still standing and the internet was of interest only to a few academics


Terry Wallis, who regained consciousness last month after being in a coma since a 1984 car accident, is shown in this image from television courtesy of KATV in Little Rock, Arkansas. On June 12, after 19 years in a coma, Wallis spoke his first words.


The last time Terry Wallis was conscious of the world around him, Ronald Reagan was president, Bill Clinton was the state governor, the Soviet Union was the US' enemy and the World Trade Center still stood.

Thrown into a stupor after an auto accident in 1984, he recently spoke his first words in 19 years: "Mom. Pepsi. Milk."

Only in the last two weeks has the 39-year-old Wallis realized that Reagan no longer is president, answering "I don't know" when asked who is in office now.

"He's beginning to realize he's in a different place now," said his physician, Dr. James Zini. "We never thought he'd regain this kind of cognitive level."

Wallis and a friend were in a car on July 13, 1984, when it ran off the road. Both men were found beneath a bridge the next day. The friend died; Wallis was left a quadriplegic and fell into a coma for three months.

He soon emerged partially from the coma. But for 18 years, he could communicate only by blinking his eyes or grunting.

Then, on June 13, he called out "Mom" to his mother and later asked for a Pepsi. While home from the hospital for a weekend, he said he wanted milk with his breakfast. Since then, he has steadily increased his vocabulary.

A speech therapist works with Wallis three days a week, and his doctor wants to give him more intensive physical therapy now that he can better comply with instructions. Nurses have been told to ask Wallis open-ended questions to help him develop answers beyond just "Yes" and "No."

Wallis has re-entered a world where so much was different. The World Trade Center, Pentagon and the Oklahoma City federal building were all attacked by terrorists. The Berlin Wall is gone, as is the Soviet Union. The Internet in 1984 was a loose affiliation of computers of interest only to academics.

Wallis' daughter, Amber, was 6 weeks old at the time of the accident. During a visit with her last month, he was able to tell her, "You're pretty" and "I love you."

His long-term memory is keen. He remembered the telephone number of a long-dead grandmother and recalled driving a car whose transmission had failed, forcing him to drive in reverse.

Over the past 19 years, the Wallis family would pick him up at the Stone County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and take him home or to family functions.

Zini said that probably aided in a gradual recovery that began with him reacting to a six-figure doctor's bill.

Eighteen years ago, Wallis shook his head violently when a doctor told the family that medical bills were running about US$125,000 -- as if to say the price was not acceptable, said his father, Jerry Wallis.

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