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The Coma That Saved My Life

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“I can’t do it anymore, Greg.”

“I know it’s hard…”, he said.

I began to cry.  “I can’t,” I sobbed.  “I just… can’t.”

I remember that day in 2007, better than I sometimes want to.  Although my loving husband was telling me I could beat this disease – I could make it through – the reality was that we were both in bed, each clinging to the last bit of hope held by the other.  The reality was that he was laying right beside me, crying too.

For seven years, I struggled with systemic RSD.  What began as an isolated nerve tumor turned into neuropathic ulcers that covered my body and refused to heal.  Prior to that, however, I had been misdiagnosed with spasmotic torticollis and multiple sclerosis… but mostly, doctors just called me crazy.

But then the ulcers started.  A trip to Mayo in Rochester confirmed our worst fears – I had RSD (Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy).  The most depressing part, however, was that I had been sick for so long that the United States offered me very little hope.  If we were going to find an answer other than amputation of my arm or permanent care, we were going to have to find it on our own.

Our research was exhaustive… AND exhausting.  The only answer we found was a treatment so risky that some people never came home.  In Germany and Mexico, RSD patients were being put into comas using ketamine, an anaesthetic thought to “reboot” these patients like computers.  The idea of allowing myself to be induced into a coma in a foreign country was terrifying.

We continued to look for other options until we found a doctor in Arkansas who was using lower doses of ketamine on patients like me.  Instead of putting them into a coma, he would give just enough to achieve what is called a “state of disassociation” (meaning the lights were on, but no one was home).  Patients would receive this lower dose of IV ketamine over a 5-day period, and the results were astonishing.  Many who had come to him were in remission.  Some even claimed they had been healed.

We were sold.

After being accepted into the program, we put all our hopeful eggs in one basket and flew to Arkansas. At the time, I was walking with a cane, weighed about 85 pounds (at 5’ 4”), and moved very slowly.  When we got to our hotel, a doorman took our luggage into an elevator and held the door for us.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re most welcome.  Are you here to go through the ketamine treatment?” he asked.

I was not surprised that he was familiar with it.  The hotel was close to the hospital, so RSD patients far and wide had probably come there to stay before me.

“I am,” I said.

He smiled.  I remember his warmth.  “I’ve seen people come here walking with canes, like you.  I’ve seen them come in wheelchairs.  They go through this treatment, and then by the time they check out… they can walk!  You’re gonna be just fine.”

I believed him.  I was so full of hope.  I couldn’t wait to throw away my cane.

The following morning, the phone rang in our hotel room.

“Hello?” I said.

“Dr. Stocker?  I’m so sorry to have to inform you of this, but we’ve come to the decision that we won’t be treating you.  Given your current state, we simply believe it’s too risky.”

She went on, but I don’t think I heard a word she said.  I was numb.  In disbelief, I told my husband that they would not treat me.  We called back to try and convince them that I’d do well.  We sat in their office and protested their decision.  We stayed in that hotel for a week, calling doctors from all the way back to my childhood to find medical records that would convince them that I was not the risk they thought I was.

It did no good.  Their decision was final.

Despondent, we went home.  We crawled in bed, and we cried.

“I can’t do it anymore, Greg.”

“I know it’s hard…”, he said.

As I cried, I thought of my life.  All the dreams I once had, the difficult childhood I had not only survived, but overcome… and this wonderful, crestfallen man laying next to me who had supported me for 7 harrowing years.  Through better and worse.

But mostly worse.

At that moment, I decided I would not be defeated.  I knew the dangers associated with the coma, but I could not imagine I had much of a future without it.

I got out of bed.

“Where are you going?” Greg asked.

“I’ll be right back.”

I limped to the office and sat down at the computer.  I looked up the contact information for the American physician who was coordinating the coma trials in Mexico, and I wrote to him.

As I pressed “Send”, my fear disappeared.  All I had was hope.

The coordinating physician called me that night.  In a weird twist of fate, the patient who was supposed to undergo the next scheduled coma had failed her EKG, and they had an opening in the trial.  I passed all medical tests quickly and, 3 weeks later, I was in a coma in Mexico.

That coma saved my life.

Today, I have 2 children and a marriage that is steeped in hope.  I still sometimes feel like I am living someone else’s life.  Although I did finally get to throw away my cane, I still look back on the old pictures and I remember.  The isolation, the pain… the despair.  I still remember it all.  Honestly, I hope I don’t ever forget.

Without that coma, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

And for that, I will always be grateful.

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Shannon Stocker
In 1999, Shannon Stocker had just completed medical school and was looking forward to a career in pediatrics when she was derailed due to RSD. Seven years and one coma later, she became a mother to two miraculous children. In 2015, she quit her job as a financial consultant for physicians and is now a full-time SAHM/aspiring author. She has written several picture book manuscripts and is also working on her memoir. When she’s not writing books, blogging, or spending time with her family, Shannon is a musician who loves to play piano, guitar, sing, and write songs.

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