On a July evening 22 years ago, 20-year-old Terry Wallis climbed into a pickup truck with two friends and rode off down a rural Arkansas highway. He never came back -- or, more precisely, he never came back the same.
The truck went off a bridge.
One of Wallis' friends was uninjured; the other died. Wallis barely made it. First, he was in a coma, then in what doctors called a "vegetative state," and then in what they called a "minimally conscious state."
He was paralyzed from the neck down and couldn't talk.
His parents assumed legal guardianship from his wife, made sure he was cared for at a rehabilitation center and brought him home for regular visits. Then on July 11, 2003, when Mrs. Wallis went to see her son, as the Chicago Tribune reported it then, Terry spoke his first word in 19 years: "Mom." Soon, he was able to converse.
"There is nothing I know of to explain scientifically what happened," Terry's doctor, James Zini, told USA Today. "I think it was a miracle."
Understandably, a group of medical researchers decided to seek a natural explanation. They did two sets of scans of Terry's brain 18 months apart, and compared these to scans from healthy people, and from another man who had suffered a similar injury six years ago, but had not recovered. They published their findings this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI). Their conclusion: "We propose that axonal regrowth may underlie these findings and provide biological mechanisms for late recovery."
In other words, they believe Terry's brain is repairing itself.
Since this revelation, some media reports have cited doctors keen to draw a distinction between Wallis and Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose deliberate killing by dehydration last year ought not to have been allowed, even if she had had no hope of recovery. Nonetheless, these reports suggest that Schiavo could not have experienced a recovery like Wallis did, because her brain injury was more severe.
CBS Evening News reported: "Now this discovery will change the way doctors think about patients in the so-called minimally conscious state. But it won't affect all patients, like Terri Schiavo, who was in a kind of coma known as a persistent vegetative state."
The Associated Press noted of Wallis' recovery: "(D)octors said the same cannot be hoped for people in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terri Schiavo."
This type of not-like-Terri claim is not new.
Donald Herbert, a New York state firefighter, went into a "decade-long stupor" in 1995, according to the Buffalo News, after "a roof collapsed on him" and "he was deprived of oxygen for up to 10 minutes." Herbert, who died of pneumonia this February, suddenly began talking again in April 2005 after his doctor, Jamil Ahmed, treated him with a drug cocktail. Ahmed told the New York Times his patient's pre-recovery condition had been "close to the persistent vegetative state."
But NBC's "Today Show" quickly cited doctors who drew a line between Herbert and Schiavo. "Neurologists who examined Terri Schiavo say her case was different, that she was in something called a persistent vegetative state, from which there is almost no chance of recovery," the show reported
Yet, truly the most telling fact about Wallis' recovery was stated by Dr. Nicholas Schiff of Cornell University, who co-authored the JCI study of Wallis' case. "We read about these widely publicized cases of miraculous recovery every few years, but none of them -- not one -- has ever been followed up scientifically until now," he told the New York Times.
Dr. Steven Laureys, a Belgian neurologist who co-authored a commentary in JCI that accompanied the Wallis study, told the Los Angeles Times: "It obliges us to reconsider old dogmas."
So why should anyone now want to draw a bright line between Schiavo and almost-unstudied recoveries like the one Wallis made?
Lady MacBeth could never rub out the spot of a king's blood she imagined on her hand -- and no matter what science tells us tomorrow, there's no erasing what's already been done to Terri Schiavo.