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Favorite Family Stories Can Help Coma Patients

When the unthinkable happens and a family member falls into a coma, it can be hard to see how anything you do is going to help. But a new study funded by the Veteran’s Administration has shown that just telling those old favorite family stories can help coma patients recover faster.

Called Familiar Auditory Sensory Training (FAST), this study, led by Theresa Pape of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Hines VA Hospital and published in Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, compared the recovery of 15 patients with traumatic closed head injuries. Half of the patients sat in silence while the other half were played recordings of family members telling some of their favorite stories:

“Remember the morning I had a craving for chicken nuggets, and no fast food restaurant sold it that early in the morning?”

That was a story told by Corinth Catanus to her husband Godfrey who had been in a coma for three months prior to FAST. This and other stories were played to coma patients four times a day for six weeks. The stories were designed to engage the patients’ memories and sensations, like temperature, feelings, and movement.

A coma is a condition, often brought on by a traumatic brain injury, where a person is unconscious and unable to open his or her eyes. After a period of complete unresponsiveness, most patients regain a minimal consciousness or enter a vegetative state where they can only minimally respond to outside instructions.

When they heard siblings and parents tell familiar stories, the patients’ brains lit up, particularly in the areas of long-term memory and understanding language. As a result, they woke up more easily and began responding to directions faster.

“After the study treatment, I could tap them on the shoulder, and they would look at me,” Pape said. “Before the treatment they wouldn’t do that.”

The changes were significant. Within the first two weeks, patients saw big gains in processing and understanding what they were hearing, and ignoring unimportant sounds like bells.

The stories also stuck with the patients. Godfrey Catanus, now awake and able to interact by way of an iPad, says he remembers hearing those voices while in the coma.

“I thought it was comforting to think they were there with me.”

The storytelling also helped the families cope. By sitting down with therapists and putting together the stories the patient would hear, loved ones felt like they could do something to help with the recovery. And telling stories can help family members know what to do while they wait for their loved one to wake up.

David Christensen is a brain injury expert at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He and his team help the victims of car crashes who suffer injuries from concussions to comas. If you know someone who has been seriously injured in an automobile accident, contact Christensen Law today for a free consultation.