Terry Schiavo was diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state but her parents fought from 1998 to 2005 to keep her alive. Michael Schiavo, her husband, had gotten on with a new life with another woman and children. He won in court to have her feeding tube removed so Terry died from starvation on March 31, 2005.
There is another Terry; this one a young man, also diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state after a car accident in 1984. For nineteen years, many people wondered why his parents did not just get on with their lives. But two years before the other Terry died, he surprised everyone. Here is his mother’s story, as told to me by Angilee Wallis.
The Most Beautiful Word
“Please God, let my son live,” I pleaded during the hour-long drive to the hospital. All I knew was that Terry and his friend, Lowell “Chubs”, had been in a terrible car accident early that Saturday morning in July of 1984. My son was just eighteen with a wife and beautiful six-week old baby girl, Amber.
Since we had no phone at that time, a neighbor had come over to tell me the hospital was trying to contact us. There had been a bad accident. My husband Jerry was out on errands with our other two sons, Perry, and George, ages seventeen and ten. Terry’s place was about a mile away, so I drove over to break the news to his wife, Sandy. Chub’s wife, was there also. With a car full of family members, we sped off to the hospital in a panic. We prayed unceasingly, pleading for the lives of Terry and Chubs. My shock prevented any tears. I could not believe this was happening to us.
We lived a simple but happy life in a modest, two-bedroom house in Marshall, Arkansas. The two youngest boys lived at home while my daughter Tammy and Terry both lived close by with their spouses. Jerry worked as a mechanic and I had been employed at a shirt factory for eight years.
When we reached the hospital, we were told the boys had both been taken by helicopter to Springfield Hospital, the trauma center three hours away. We got back into the car for the longest drive of my life.
At the trauma center, we were taken aside and filled in. Terry had a brain stem injury. This meant paralysis was a possibility. He had been given medication to reduce his brain swelling, but the swelling continued.
“There will be machines and a lot of tubes,” the nurse explained. “Terry has been given medication for pain and is not awake. It is possible he might be able to hear you, so remain calm. We do not want to upset him further in any way.” As I walked into the room and saw all the tubes and machines, my emotions spilled out. I quickly stepped back out. Shaking, crying, and gasping for air, I tried hard to get myself under control.
Taking deep breaths to calm myself, I walked over to Terry’s bedside. Love and fear overwhelmed me as I looked at my son lying unconscious. Yet, seeing him gave me hope. The only physical sign of the accident was a cut over his eye that required three stitches. Terry’s arms were twisting back and forth. “Isn’t that good?” I asked the nurse when I saw his arms moving. “He can’t be paralyzed if his arms are moving.”
The nurse explained that twitching arms were a reaction to his brain swelling and it was not a good sign. I swallowed hard but could not stop my tears. I touched his hand and struggled to keep my voice steady. “Terry, hang in there. I love you and I’m going to be here for you.” His wife also touched his hand and talked to him reassuringly. I looked at my boy who had always been so healthy and energetic, lying there with tubes going into him. “This can’t be,” I thought. But I could only pray that Terry would recover. Chubs did not make it.
It was still possible that Terry could die also. For several days the doctors tried in vain to stop his brain from swelling. Day after day the only word was: “We don’t know what the extent of his injuries will be.”
But whatever kind of life Terry would have, as his mother--the one who gave him life--I would be there for him. For weeks I slept on a couch in a waiting room. Jerry came often with the other kids. Together, we kept praying and reassuring Terry to hang in there.
After a few weeks, Sandy and I worked out a routine taking turns at Terry’s side. Towards the end of October, the doctor told us that there was no longer any reason to keep Terry in the hospital. The doctors could do no more for him.
Terry was still in a coma and was placed in a nursing home two hours away from our house. At this point, some people questioned if perhaps it would have been better for Terry to have died in the accident. If he never came out of the coma, was my desire to keep him alive selfish? I did not want to let him go, and yet, what did Terry want?
I asked God what He wanted. “Lord, I love Terry and I want you to heal him, but your will be done,” I prayed. “I trust in you, God.” In the midst of my pain, I began to feel some peace. If Terry continued to live, it would be because God wanted it.
I returned to work, where I had been given a leave of absence, but I spent every other weekend at the nursing home. As Christmas neared that first year after the accident, I could not imagine a family celebration without Terry. I wanted him home. Since he was still in a coma, there was great concern that this would be too difficult. I was scared but I was also determined; Terry needed to be home during Christmas.
Terry’s feeding tube was removed shortly after Thanksgiving. I watched the nurses feed him with a syringe and decided I could manage. Staff from the nursing home helped us carry Terry into the car. Family and friends helped us carry him into the house once we got him home.
In the familiar setting of home and surrounded by family and friends, loved ones came by to wish Terry a Merry Christmas. Everyone talked to him as if he were the old Terry. He was still in a coma, but I believed he had to know the difference between being in the nursing home and being at home. I could not prove it, but I felt it with my whole heart.
From that time on, we started bringing Terry home every other weekend. By the end of the next year, Terry was moved into a nursing home in the town where I worked. I frequently stopped by to see him after work and we brought him home every weekend.
The months turned into years--five, ten, fifteen-- and people saw no improvement. Terry’s young wife got on with her life. His daughter, Amber only occasionally saw her father as she grew up. A few people questioned the wisdom of bringing him home every weekend but most of our family and friends supported us. It was a strain, but Jerry and I were united in our unwavering love for Terry.
Like a bud that blooms so slowly that its movement is imperceptible, Jerry and I felt that our son was opening up. It was so gradual that it escaped others. There were little things like a blink or a wink. One day, Terry laughed. And once Terry did something, he could continue to do it.
Driving with Terry in the car one morning, his head bobbed up and down after I asked him a question. I paid no attention, thinking it was the bouncing of the car that caused it. But Jerry cried out: “Look, he’s answering you. He’s shaking his head yes!” From that moment on, Terry was able to shake his head when asked a question. Later on, he started making the sound: “uh-huh.”
Nineteen years after the accident, on Wednesday, June 11, 2003, I walked into Terry’s room and said “Hi, Terry,” as I always did. One of the nursing home aides asked him, “Who is that Terry?”
“Mom,” he answered clearly. I almost fell over I was so shocked. The aid and I looked at each other with the same astonished expressions on our faces. Tears of joy rolled down our laughing cheeks as we ran over and hugged Terry.
“Did you hear that?” I cried. “He said ‘Mom!’ Terry, say that again!”
Terry laughed and again said “Mom”, the most beautiful word I had ever heard. Terry did not say another word that day, but after nineteen years, he had spoken! His one word was more incredible than his first “mamma” so many years before. We brought him home for a weekend visit that Friday. I kept asking him questions that he could answer with “Mom.” Later that day, I got him to say “Pepsi.”
On Saturday morning, I awoke to turn him over at 4 a.m., which was a necessary task. This was always a time when I would talk with him. Terry was mumbling. “I know you are trying to tell me something,” I said. “Just keep trying and I’ll catch it,” I told him. He kept struggling until “Mom and Dad” tumbled out.
“Say it again,” I pleaded excitedly through my tears.
Terry repeated: “Mom and Dad.”
“Terry, tomorrow is Father’s Day,” I cried. “When Dad gets up, we’ll tell him what you can say. It will be his Father’s Day present from you.”
When Jerry got up, I could not contain my excitement. “Jerry, Terry has a Father’s Day present for you,” I said, escorting him to Terry’s bedside.
Then, very clearly, Terry spoke, “Mom and Dad.”
Then, very clearly, Terry spoke, “Mom and Dad.”
Jerry is not one given to emotions, but tears glistened in his eyes. “That’s the best Father’s Day present I could have,” he said.
For breakfast, I expected Terry to ask for Pepsi--his new word--when I asked him what he wanted to drink. Instead, he said, “Milk.”
When a nurse at the nursing home learned of all Terry’s words, she arranged for a speech therapist to visit Terry. “Angilee, I believe he will be speaking in full sentences within a week,” she announced.
The next week, when I walked into his room, he was telling the people around him that his birthday was April 7, 1964. I laughed and hugged him then asked: “Terry, what else can you say?”
“Anything I want,” he answered, laughing.
By the end of August we brought Terry home to stay. I quit my job to care for him full-time. His daughter Amber is nineteen now. She comes every day to spend time with her dad. She loves Terry just because he is her dad.
Terry is a quadriplegic as a result of the accident. Yet, many times he has told me,”I’m so happy.” God did want Terry to live and now I know Terry also wanted to survive. My family is still the center of my life, but God is also there with us.
My son’s life is a miracle. I keep praying and trusting, that God will continue to see us all through.
Follow up: Three years after he “woke up” in 2003, research on Wallis, was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation concluding that the nerve fibers from the cells in Wallis’s brain remained intact. It was reported by Dr. James Bernat, neurologist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire that Schiavo’s brain cells had died. Nerve cells that have not died can form new connections although it is very rare in brain cells. The belief is that for nineteen years, while others had given up on Wallis, he may have been very slowly recovering as nerves in his brain formed new connections.
Still, there was no definitive explanation as to how, after nineteen years in a coma, Terry came out of it. His parents reported that as his recovery continues, his old personality returned to the point that he can even make jokes. “He now seems almost exactly like his old self. And he very often tells us how glad he is to be alive,” Jerry Wallis said.
This story was originally told to me for Amazing Grace for Mothers.
The Wallis family is very private and only went public with their story with the hope of getting more help for Terry. To read more or to donate go to The Terry Wallis Fund.