Fri, Jun 15, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Poland's `Rip van Winkle' grabs the world's attention

NEW BEGINNING Even though one expert said Jan Grzebski had not been in a `true coma,' everyone wants to know about the man who woke up after 19 years, and his wife


It is the stuff of fairytales and happy endings, the story of a Polish railway worker who woke up to a new world of plenty after falling into a "coma" 19 years ago when Poland was still communist.

Since a Polish TV station reported this month that railway worker Jan Grzebski, now 65, had roused from a coma-like state after nearly a generation, the phone in his humble apartment in this northern Polish town has not stopped ringing.

Everyone -- the Chinese, the Portuguese, the Americans -- wants to interview the Polish "Rip van Winkle," the bearded storybook character who slept for 20 years.

Even warnings by professor Hubert Kwiecinski, who is the Polish health ministry's adviser in neurology, that this may be less coma and more modern myth in the making have not dimmed the interest.

"We can't say with absolute certainty that this was a case of someone being in a coma or any form of coma such as being brain dead or in a vegetative state," Kwiecinski said.

After he was hit by a train in 1988, Grzebski was left bedridden and unable to speak, but he did not lose his vital functions.

He did not have to be fed intravenously or breathe with a respirator, which is usually the case of people in a comatose state, Kwiecinski said.

Grzebski himself said he was conscious of what was going on around him throughout his state of -- well, call it "in absentia" if it wasn't a real coma.

"I heard everything around me, I understood everything but I could not utter a single word," he said. "I was like a plant. It was horrible, not being able to communicate."

He proudly showed how today he is able to lift his legs a few centimeters and touch his head with his right hand.

Every gesture, no matter how minor, elicits the joy of Grzebski's wife Gertruda, who may be the true heroine of the story.

"Without her, I would have been pushing up daisies a long time ago," Grzebski said in a weak but clear voice. "I'm alive today thanks to my wife."

Doctors gave him "hardly any chance of surviving" after his accident in 1988, Gertruda recalled.

Grzebski struck his head when he was hooking up two train wagons. He developed a brain tumor which caused him to lose the power of speech and the ability to move his limbs.

Grzebski was transferred from one hospital to another to undergo treatment until finally his wife opted to bring him home and care for him herself.

"I did everything to keep him alive. I clung to even the flimsiest hope. I so wanted my children to have a father and their children, a grandfather," she said.

Earlier this year he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and medical staff seized the occasion to give him rehabilitative therapy. This time, it worked.

"I felt that I had a brain," Grzebski recalled.

There may not have been a miracle in Grzebski's revival, but the story of his wife's dedication has struck a chord with romantics.

And they will delight in learning that his first word after 19 years of silence was "Truda," a diminutive of his wife's name.

Grzebski is now making the acquaintance of 11 grandchildren.

The global media has likened Grzebski's story to the hit 2003 German film Good Bye Lenin! in which a family tries to recreate life in East Germany to spare their fragile mother too much commotion when she emerges from a coma after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Grzebski said he has been aware that the days of communism, rationing and interminable lines to get the little that was available in the shops, had long ended in Poland.

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