Terry Wallis, who spontaneously regained his ability to speak after a traumatic brain injury left him almost unanswered for 19 years, and who later became the subject of extensive research showing how a brain injury can heal on his own, died on 29 March during a rehabilitation facility in Surcy, Arc. He was 57 years old.
He had pneumonia and heart problems, said his brother, George Wallis, who confirmed the death.
Terry Wallis was 19 when a pickup truck with two friends slipped off a small bridge in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and landed upside down in a dry riverbed. The accident left him in a coma for a short time, then in a permanent vegetative state for several months. A friend died; the other recovered.
Until 2003, Mr. Wallis lay in a nursing home in minimal consciousness, able to track objects with his eyes or blink on command.
But on June 11, 2003, he practically returned to the world when, when he saw his mother, Angily, he suddenly said, “Mom.” At the sight of the woman he was told was his eldest daughter Amber, who was six weeks old at the time of the incident, he said, “You are beautiful,” and told her he loved her.
“Within three days of saying ‘Mom’ and ‘Pepsi,’ he regained his speech,” said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan, who is leading the imaging study. n. Wallis’ brain. The findings were presented in 2006 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
“He was disoriented,” Dr. Schiff said in a telephone interview about Mr. Wallis’ appearance. “He thought it was still 1984, but otherwise he knew everyone in his family and was so fluent.”
Mr. Wallis’s brain scans, the first of its kind for a late-recovering patient, revealed changes in the strength of the obvious connections in the back of the brain that are thought to have helped his conscious awareness, and in the middle of the small brain, an affected area in motor control, which may have explained the very limited movement in his arms and legs while he was minimally conscious.
Mr. Wallis, who regained some movement after waking up, was diagnosed with severe quadriparesis, characterized by muscle weakness in the limbs.
“He’s a unicorn in the sense that he showed up so late,” Dr. Schiff said. But he added: “We will never know exactly why he appeared after 19 years.”
Mr. Wallis’ family believes that regular visits to the home while he was minimally conscious have had an impact. “We think it helped him wake up,” said his brother George.
Mr. Wallis’ recovery came nearly two years before the death of Terry Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered extensive brain damage and became permanently vegetative when her heart stopped beating in 1990. Her feeding tube was was removed after a fierce national debate on patients’ rights.
Terry Wayne Wallis was born on April 4, 1964 in Mariana, Arc. His father, Jerry, is a mechanic and farmer. His mother, Angili (Marshall) Wallis, worked in a shirt factory.
At the time of his accident, Mr. Wallis worked as a car mechanic and, as his brother says, was “a little wild and lived on the edge, doing what he could to enjoy life.”
After Terry woke up in 2003, his father said in an interview, “He loved flirting with nurses and could move his arms and legs, but he couldn’t.”
He added: “He could talk to us, but it was as if time had stopped for him. He remembered the people from the time he crashed. “
George Wallis recalled an incident eight years ago when he took his wife Lindsay to visit his brother, who had been in his recovery for more than a decade.
“My wife is much younger than me, and my mother said, ‘Terry, do you know who this is?’ This is Lindsay. She is George’s wife, “said Wallis. And Terry said, “She’s too beautiful and too old for him.” He thought I was still 12 years old.
Until he was transferred to a rehab eight months ago, Mr. Wallis spent almost all of his last 19 years living in his parents’ home, cared for by family members, including his daughter and his mother, who died in 2018. “She was the glue,” said his brother George, “the absolute savior.”
In addition to his brother George, his daughter and father, Mr. Wallis has survived by another brother, Perry; sister Tammy Bays; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Sandy Wallis ended in divorce.
Dr Schiff said Mr Wallis and other patients were “still teaching us” about the brain’s ability to cope with trauma.
“I think Terry’s legacy of neuroscience at the highest level,” he said, “is to instill our enduring, undiluted and deep interest in understanding how human consciousness can recover from serious brain injury.”