I'm scared of brain damage even more than death. Death I could deal with. Death is final, punctuative, transformative. I don't know what it's like but everybody's got to do it eventually. At least it's decisive. But severe head injuries? The kind that kill parts of you but leave the rest sort of floundering about for a while until they finally go as well? Those sound like the worst. I never want to know what it's like to have part of myself be killed before the rest. I'd rather lose a limb than parts of my personality or consciousness. Not only must it be miserable for the victim, but I'd imagine their friends and family would take it pretty hard too. I can't think of what it must be like to have someone you're close to permanently mentally altered by an accident or illness. And having a loved one in a vegetative state must be even more painful than losing them altogether for some. The lingering uncertainty of it, the drawn-out process of hoping for recovery while being prepared for the worst has got to be awful.
There's no real treatment for brain damage. So much of the human brain is still a mystery, and so with vegetative patients often the only course of action is just to wait and see if they get better. But sometimes breakthroughs come out of unexpected places. Some medical discoveries happen entirely by accident. One such seemingly miraculous discovery arose during the care of a comatose patient in South Africa. Louis Viljoen had been hit by a truck while on his bike. He was only 24 at the time and suffered a massive head injury. He was completely unresponsive, but his mother opted to keep him on life support. Five years later, she asked doctors to give Louis a sedative to help calm spasms in his left arm. They prescribed him the sleeping pill zolpidem, which his mother helped administer orally. About half an hour later, he started vocalizing. Soon after that, he was talking to his mother. He had lain completely vacant for five years, and suddenly he was conversing.
Doctors were dumbfounded. They tried the same drug on other brain damaged patients and found that 60% of them responded positively. Comatose patients were suddenly looking around and talking. Full functionality wasn't regained, but they could finally communicate with their loved ones. When the drug wore off, so did the state of consciousness, but it could be reinstated every day by simply giving another dose. Families who had effectively lost someone suddenly found themselves able to talk to them again. The patients could even make new memories of conversations that happened while under the effects of the drug.
Doctors still aren't sure how a sleeping pill, of all things, could wake up seemingly dead brain cells. Brain scans show that damaged areas in head injury patients could light up anew with the drug administered. It's theorized that the way brain cell receptors work changes once a chemical released upon head trauma takes hold of the brain. The sleep aid might break that hold and allow brain cells to function similarly to how they did before the injury.
If research on zolpidem proves fruitful, we may have a way of treating coma patients beyond the wait-and-see method--which would be fantastic news for many families. Here's hoping this pans out.