Few people understand what it’s like to be in a coma. Fewer have actually experienced one. As Bill Harper will tell you, experiencing a coma doesn’t help you understand it any better.
In June 2010, the summer after his junior year of college, Bill was diagnosed with leukemia while on a school trip to Africa. What started out as a minor scrape on his shoulder became a two-week blur of fatigue, feverish nights, numerous visits to the doctor, blood transfusions in the ICU, a bone marrow biopsy, and finally, a shocking diagnosis from a tall, grey-haired doctor at a hospital in Nuremberg.
“For him to say that [it was leukemia] was just completely out of left field,” Bill said. “I expected him to say that I had a bad case of yellow fever or dengue or some other crazy tropical thing that you get in Senegal. But the thing about leukemia is it comes on really fast. They don’t know how it happens or how to prevent it. They don’t know anything.”
Bill started chemo the next day. He also became a participant in numerous studies, as many hospitals test cancer patients in efforts of finding a cure. “For one of the studies,” Bill recalled. “They did more advanced testing than they normally do. And in doing that, they found out that I had a particular kind of leukemia that you can only cure with a stem cell transplant.”
A month after beginning chemo, Bill received the transplant. Similar to what happens in a blood transfusion, stem cells are pumped into the body through an IV, replacing damaged bone marrow. This process requires many specific medicines, which can cause various side effects. One of the rarest, most serious effects is that the patient can go into a catatonic state. In January 2011, Bill fell into a coma – one that he would not wake up from for an entire month.
“The doctors didn’t know why I had fallen into that state,” Bill said. “They thought it was psychological. That I had decided, ‘Well I’m not going to talk anymore because I’m tired of being in the hospital. And if I don’t talk, I’ll get to leave.’ They had no idea what was going on.”
It wasn’t until a fill-in doctor came for a weekend visit. She performed a test on Bill that finally gave them some answers. The test was simple. The doctor took a pen and dragged it up the bottom of Bill’s foot. If his big toe reflexed backwards, the coma was due to a psychological issue. If it reflexed forwards, it was neurological.
Bill’s big toe went forwards, revealing that his catatonic state was due to a neurological issue. In this case, it was brought on by a bad reaction to the drug Tacrolimus, which is administered to prevent organ rejection after a transplant. “They took it away, and I woke up,” Bill said. “And the first word I said was ‘F*ck’ because I probably wanted to say that.”
I asked Bill what coming out of a coma is like – does it feel like waking up from being asleep? He immediately shook his head no. “I have no idea,” he said. “I don’t remember anything.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” he added quickly. “Years later, I was in the hospital again and was flipping through the channels. I found this show called Sons of Guns, which is a show about a gun shop in Texas called Red Jacket Firearms. I think now they’ve been shut down by the DEA.”
Bill swore he had watched the show before, but he couldn’t remember when and where. So he called his sister. She told him that she used to watch it all the time while he was in the coma. “Other than that,” he said. “I don’t remember anything. And I don’t know why the hell I knew that show.”
“So you don’t actually remember opening your eyes?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “Well actually, my eyes were open. That was the weird thing. My sister said it was like I was looking right through her. I wasn’t asleep, I was just unavailable. I was there, but I wasn’t. Nobody knows where I went.”
Nobody knows where he went, but everybody was relieved when he came back. Today, Bill is cancer-free. It’s been seven years since that fateful Africa trip and 32 operations, two cardiac arrests, and two knee replacements to boot – $16 million worth of medical work, Bill estimates. The most valuable thing he came away with, though, is his life.