The human brain is incredibly complicated. In fact, it’s such a mystery that even doctors who dedicate their lives to exploring its intricacies won’t ever solve all of the puzzles it offers them.
When a person experiences a traumatic brain injury, the results can be devastating. They can lose the ability to walk or talk, or their entire personality can change. The only certain thing about traumatic brain injury is that no one case is exactly the same.
When Sarah Scantlin was just 18, she suffered such an injury. Doctors said she would never wake up again, and for 20 years, all her family could do was wait. After two decades, they finally learned the truth…
In 1984, Sarah Scantlin was living the dream. She was 18 years old and just starting out at Hutchinson Junior Community College. She was so thrilled to begin the next chapter of her life; it wasn’t even a month into school and she’d already made a name for herself on the dance team.
On Friday, September 21, the last night of autumn, Sarah and some of her friends decided to enjoy a night on the town. The U.S. had just dominated the Olympics and there was a feeling of euphoria in the air. Sarah and her friends decided around midnight to venture to another bar…
However, they never made it. As the friends went to cross the street, a drunk driver hit Sarah and sped off. The force of the accident caused her to roll over his roof, where she landed in oncoming traffic—and was hit again.
Jim and Betsy Scantlin remembered receiving the phone call that every parent fears. Jim could still recall the awful feeling in his stomach when his wife woke him up that night, saying only: “We’ve got to get to the hospital. Something terrible has happened to Sarah.”
The Scantlins were told by the doctors that they should prepare themselves, but nothing could have kept them from the shock and horror they felt upon entering Sarah’s hospital room and seeing her still and broken body. She looked almost lifeless.
It was a sight the Scantlins would never forget. “I take one look in there and it’s just gruesome…horribly mangled,” remembered Jim. It turned out that, while it was the first car that rendered Sarah unconscious, it was the second car that ran over her skull and caused the most serious damage.
It was Betsy who finally asked the doctors what the future held for her beautiful young daughter. “What happened? How bad is it? When is she going to wake up?” She asked. The doctors told her that while Sarah would survive, she would never wake up again.
The damage to Sarah’s brain was extensive and irreparable. They had no way of knowing if she was even really “there” or if the damage had left her in a permanently vegetative state. The only thing she could do on her own was breathe.
The 1980s passed and so did the 1990s. Sarah’s parents constantly struggled with their feelings over their daughter. Sometimes they pretended she had died just so they could get closure. Even Sarah’s brother, Jim, felt like she was slipping away from the world.
In the blink of an eye, 20 years had passed and the Scantlins had completely given up hope. That was why it was so shocking when a nurse from the home where Sarah lived called the Scantlins to let them know that she had someone on the line who wanted to say hello…
At first, Betsy couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “It’s Sarah,” said her daughter in a familiar, if gravely, voice. Any doubts Betsy had melted away when the nurse prompted her daughter, “Tell her what you want! Tell her what you want!” and Sarah replied, loudly and clearly, “I want makeup!”
When Jim noticed his wife in tears on the phone, he couldn’t believe what was happening. He took the phone to speak to Sarah for the first time in 20 years. “This is Dad,” he said. “Hi Dad. I love you,” was Sarah’s simple but heartfelt reply.
After 20 years of being in a coma, Sarah was awake! Her parents couldn’t believe the good news. They rushed to the hospital in order to see and hear their daughter in a waking state for the first time in decades.
Sarah’s road to recovery was a slow one. Her speech was slurred and her body was still not totally responsive, but she could communicate. Curious about how much Sarah was aware of while she was in her coma, her father started to ask her some questions…
“Sarah, what’s 9/11?” asked her father. She responded with, “Bad… fire… airplanes… building… hurt people.” When he asked her about Oklahoma City, she replied with “Children, fire.” She might have been unconscious, but Sarah had been aware of so much.
Jennifer Trammell was Sarah’s nurse for most of the 20 years of her coma. She wasn’t surprised to learn that Sarah was aware of what was going on around her. She often noticed Sarah’s eyes following her and she performed tasks around the room and spoke to her.
There were other signs over the years that Sarah might one day emerge from her coma, however unlikely that might have seemed. Around year 14 of her coma, she began screaming when people left her room. At the time, they thought it was involuntary; now they wondered if Sarah was trying to get their attention…
Seeing just how far Sarah had come since waking up, doctors around the world were forced to change the way they thought about comas and brain damage. Based on what they knew, Sarah shouldn’t have been conscious at all during her coma, and yet she was.
Sarah went through extensive surgeries and physical therapy in order to help her regain movement. She also regularly worked with a speech coach so that she could better communicate with the people in her life.
For two wonderful years, Sarah was able to spend time with her loved ones, like her brother Jim. Tragically, she passed away in 2016. Still, her family was grateful for the chance they got to spend with the daughter they thought was lost forever.
Sarah Scantlin was a real life Sleeping Beauty, and her awakening didn’t even need a prince. Though bittersweet, it was lovely that she was able to reconnect with her family against such tremendous odds!
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