Terry Wallis, 57, dies; Awoke 19 years after traumatic brain injury

Terry Wallis, who regained spontaneous speech after a 19-year traumatic brain injury left him virtually unresponsive and then became the subject of a major study showing how a damaged brain can heal itself, died on March 29 at a rehabilitation facility in Searcy, Ark. He was 57.

He had pneumonia and heart problems, said his brother George Wallis, who confirmed the death.

Terry Wallis was 19 when the pickup he was in with two friends slid off a small bridge and landed upside down in a dry riverbed. The accident left him in a coma for a short time, then in a sustained vegetative state for several months. A friend died; the other recovered.

By 2003, Mr. Wallis was in a nursing home in a minimally conscious state, able to track objects with his eyes or blink on command.

But on June 11, 2003, he effectively returned to the world when, upon seeing his mother, Angilee, he suddenly said, “Mom.” Upon seeing the woman he was told was his adult daughter, Amber, who at the time When she was six weeks old after the accident, he said, “You’re beautiful,” and told her he loved her.

“Within three days of saying ‘Mama’ and ‘Pepsi,’ he had regained his verbal fluency,” said Dr. Nicholas Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medicine in Manhattan who led Mr Wallis’ brain imaging studies, said in a phone interview. The results were presented in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2006.

“He was disoriented,” said Dr. Ship about the emergence of Mr. Wallis. “He thought it was still 1984, but other than that he knew everyone in his family and had this fluency.”

Mr Wallis’ brain scans – the very first of a late recovering patient – showed changes in the strength of obvious connections in the back of the brain, which are thought to have helped his conscious awareness, and in the midline of the cerebellum, an affected area in motor control, which may have accounted for the very limited movement of his arms and legs while he was minimally conscious. Mr Wallis, who regained some mobility after waking up, was diagnosed with severe quadriparesis characterized by muscle weakness in his limbs.

“He’s a unicorn in the sense that he showed up so late,” said Dr. Ship. But he added, “We’ll never know exactly why he showed up after 19 years.”

Mr Wallis’ family believe regular visits to his home while he was minimally conscious had an impact. “We believe that contributed to his awakening,” said his brother George.

Mr. Wallis’ recovery came nearly two years before the death of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman who suffered severe brain damage and lapsed into a persistent vegetative state when her heart stopped beating in 1990. Her feeding tube was removed after a bitter national debate over patients’ rights.

Terry Wayne Wallis was born on February 4, 1964 in Marianna, Ark. His father, Jerry, was a mechanic and farmer. His mother, Angilee (Marshall) Wallis, worked in a shirt factory.

At the time of his accident, Mr Wallis was working as a car mechanic and, according to his brother, was “a bit wild and living on the edge and doing what he could do to enjoy life”.

After Terry woke up in 2003, his father said in an interview, “He enjoyed flirting with the nurses and he could move his arms and legs but couldn’t stand up.”

He added: “He was able to talk to us, but for him it was like time had stood still. He remembered people from the time he destroyed.”

George Wallis recalled an incident eight years ago when he brought his wife Lindsey to visit his brother, who was more than a decade in his recovery at the time.

“My wife is quite a bit younger than me and my mom said, ‘Terry, do you know who this is? This is Lindsey. She’s George’s wife,’” Mr Wallis said. “And Terry said, ‘She’s way too pretty and way too old for him.’ He thought I was 12 years old.”

Prior to his transfer to a rehabilitation facility eight months ago, Mr Wallis spent most of the last 19 years at 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, daughter and father, Mr. Wallis is survived by another brother, Perry; a sister, Tammy Baze; and three grandchildren. His marriage to Sandi Wallis ended in divorce.

dr Schiff said that Mr. Wallis and other patients “still teach us” what the brain’s potential for dealing with trauma is.

“I think Terry’s legacy to neuroscience at the highest level,” he said, “is to spark our ongoing, unadulterated, and deep interest in understanding how human consciousness can recover after severe brain injury.”

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