It remains unclear exactly how much the brain processes while in a coma. But it’s common for doctors to recommend family members speak with someone while in such a state, which is the situation Joseph Rojas found himself in three years ago when his brother, Mark, got caught up in an apartment fire and was placed into a medically-induced coma for weeks.
“I felt weird talking to him about my day, even though he was under and we were encouraged to talk to him,” said Joseph, speaking to Waypoint. “I wanted to talk about stuff that I know that he would like. And in most cases, that is video games.”
In the hospital, Joseph started by telling Mark about the game he was playing, The Banner Saga. He described the world, the long journey his characters went on, and how the strategy game played. It was around this time one of the doctors mentioned it would be okay to bring in music to play for Mark, a way to pass the time with something he would’ve liked in his non-coma state, and so Joseph’s mind drifted into the same direction: video games.
“I have these little vivid memories of us growing up and having been told to go to bed,” said Joseph, “but then waiting for mom and dad to go to sleep. And then we'd sneak out to the living room and try to set up sheets above the hallway entrance into the kitchen area to block the light because we were turning on the TV again to play more video games.”
The Rojas family was a strict one growing up, with religion and church a high priority.
“No dating,” said his sister, Natalie. “No boyfriends or girlfriends. No rated R movies. No listening to ‘secular’ music. No Halloween, even. But video games, no matter how weird or crazy, we could play. I still don’t understand how our parents justified that. But we all clung to it.”
Natalie’s first memory involving games was watching Joseph and Mark play.
Joseph soon brought in a Switch, and started filling the room with the sounds of Breath of the Wild—the pitter patter of feet across Hyrule, the gusts of wind whooshing through a hang glider, the impossible-to-forget twinkle that plays whenever Link picks up another item. Joseph likened the experience to streaming a video game, knowing an audience is out there but not being sure if they’re responding to what you’re doing, yet you have to keep talking.
“When my siblings would visit, we all would play Mario Kart around the bed,” said Joseph. “We would sit one sibling on the left, one at the foot of the bed and one on the right. And we would have our Switches up as loud as they can go, just so Mark could hear the madness.”
Mark remembers nothing from this time period, he told me, which is normal. His recollection of the fire and his injuries begins in his kitchen.
“I was standing with my hand on the counter in the kitchen area,” said Mark. “I had no idea what happened. All I could see and hear—mostly it was audible—was the sound of fire.”
As Mark looked around, a horrific realization: the walls were on fire. The fire seemed to be coming from the apartment above, so Mark considered his next move. His wife—girlfriend at the time—wasn’t there. Her cat wasn’t there, either. Maybe they got out? He considered jumping out the window before, but even in a moment like this, realized that was a bad idea.
In reality, his partner had woken him up and told him to follow her outside—but he didn’t. Confused and disoriented from being woken up and surrounded by smoke, Mark ended up, for whatever reason, in the apartment kitchen. That’s where things went from bad to worse.
Downstairs, then, seemed like the move, and upon touching the doorknob Mark, for the first time, felt pain. He briefly flinched, chuckled to himself—”Okay, that hurts,”—and kept going. Descending the building, he spotted a cat. Not his partner’s cat, though, but a stray. He grabbed it anyway. The two continued before Mark realized a colossal mistake: the fire had not started above him, as suspected. Instead, the fire had started below. He’d gone towards it.
“I was standing with my hand on the counter in the kitchen area. I had no idea what happened. All I could see and hear—mostly it was audible—was the sound of fire.”
“Where I ran down was the hottest point of the entire building,” he said. “That's the flight of stairs that I always go up and down when I come back from work. It's just muscle memory.”
Hardly in a state to act rationally, Mark pushed forward. He exited the building, set the cat down, and that’s when first responders pounced on him. In the ambulance, Mark kept asking for his partner before realizing she was right beside him. (At the time, because they weren’t married, most of what she could do was watch from a distance.) It’s also at this moment when the adrenaline subsided and his body started communicating the extreme pain he’s in.
“They push me back onto the gurney, onto the bed, and they have to move me a little bit—a little bit to the left,” he said. “And as soon as they moved me, that's when the pain really kicks in, and I'm like, ‘Oh, fuck, that fucking hurts.’”
Mark Rojas in the hospital, following the accident. Photo courtesy of Joseph Rojas
They pumped him full of meds. He passed out, and wouldn’t wake up for another two weeks.
Meanwhile, Joseph was finishing a workout at a local 24 Hour Fitness in a quieter part of the gym, where people actually watched the lines of TVs you often find in these workout warehouse centers. That’s when Joseph noticed one of the TVs talking about a fire from the night before at a converted motel in Santa Ana, California.
“And I was like, whoa,” said Joseph. “My brother's apartment is at a converted motel in Santa Ana.”
Hotel-to-apartment conversion projects have become en vogue in recent years as a way of dealing with the United States’ desperate need for more housing, and it’s been especially popular during COVID-19. Construction material costs have skyrocketed due to supply chain issues, so the cost of erecting a new building is higher than repurposing an existing property.
Joseph studied the local TV b-roll playing over the anchor revealing details about the fire. Then, the news report went on, noting a man in his 30s was injured.
“[A video] showed this person being wheeled away and you could see his arms were in front of him and he was laying on his back,” he said. “It's called boxing hands. Your skin shrinks around you, so everything is pulled in—his arms were kind of in front of him. You look like a boxer. And man, this person has dark brown slash black hair. That's what my brother has.”
A local news report from the time noted three people were injured in the fire, Joseph the most severely.
Joseph texted his brother and asked if he was okay. No response, of course; at this point, Mark is either delirious from the smoke and pain or about to be knocked out by a pain med cocktail. Joseph figured out what hospital Mark would, in theory, have been taken to.
“There was hospital hold music,” he said, “And it was such a weird thing to wait for because the hold music was just hold music. It wasn't sad hold music, it was just the music you listen to while you're on hold. She came back. It was maybe a 30-second gap. And she said yes.”
He hung up, found his wife, and cried for a moment.
Then, Joseph took a long breath and began a process many of us have, unfortunately, also been part of: calling family and friends to inform them about an unexpected horrible event.
On the night of the fire, Mark had just finished a pretty typical evening, where he and his partner ate dinner, smoked weed, and pivoted to their two-TV, two-PlayStation 4 setup, where they then proceeded to play Final Fantasy XIV at the same time next to one another.
This moment built on the last five years, which Mark had spent amassing a game collection. Some people get older and spend their disposable income on a few NES cartridges, while Mark was spending hundreds on signal conversion cables for old consoles, and putting 10 different Game Boys and two old school Game & Watches—the original versions of the things Nintendo has been remixing lately—on a shelf. He was, like many, a Nintendo kid.
One time, before we spoke, Mark had just booted up the 2004 MMO EverQuest 2 “because I’ve always wanted to see how that game was.” The verdict: “pretty fun.” Ironically, he was the last of his family to get a Switch, a console his siblings got into while he was in a coma.
Mark described the two weeks he spent in a coma, where he then underwent roughly 11 skin graft surgeries to begin repairing his body, as “a series of really intense hallucinations.” He doesn’t remember his family visiting, like the one-sided conversations where his brother talked about The Banner Saga, or his family huddled around playing Mario Kart on Switch.
When he woke up, one of his first thoughts wasn’t about the state of his body—but that cat.
“Because I thought I saved my wife's cat,” he said. “I thought that was my wife's cat, Nightwing. It wasn't until she told me after I woke up exactly what had happened.”
Nightwing, sadly, didn’t make it.
It was also the moment he came to understand how much more traumatic the night of the fire was, how much his mind had either blocked out or been unable to process in real-time. To Mark, he casually walked down a few flights of stairs and experienced a few burns, but his partner saw differently: a man “burnt to shit,” according to Mark,” and screaming hysterically.
“To this day, I don't remember,” he said.
And yet the trauma—both psychologically and physically—was very real, for everyone.
Playing games in the hospital. Photo courtesy of Joseph Rojas
“When you're with a family member that's in the hospital,” said Joseph, “it's this moment of reflection about how you may have treated them or how you treated each other over the years and wondering if and how things could have gone different. That was more prevalent at the very beginning when we weren't sure he was going to survive.”
Mark doesn’t remember the times that Joseph visited him and played games at his side, but when he woke up, Joseph played more games to help them pass the time. In the beginning, Mark wasn’t capable of verbal communication, and would instead point his eyes at “Y” or “N” written on a dry erase board. Joseph would start playing a game like The Banner Saga and every 10 minutes or so, ask Mark if he wanted to keep watching. His eyes usually said “Y.”
Because burn victims are at severe risk of infection, Mark didn’t have a roommate. His partner visited every day he was in the hospital, Joseph was there all the time, and his parents and other siblings were swooping through, too. But when they were gone, Mark would be alone.
“In my head. I was like ‘OK, Mark surviving this shit means everything has to change. We have to be in each other's lives. What do we do?’ And the answer was video games. It was such a simple solution to our casual isolation from one another.”
His family bought him a Switch while he was still in the hospital, but it was too heavy to keep upright. During the coma, his muscles had rapidly atrophied to the point that even the Switch was a burden. In the early days, even holding his iPhone was too much after a few minutes.
Mark was released after two months, a mixture of the hospital bed for recovering from skin graft surgeries and rehab work. But leaving the hospital was only the start of Mark’s journey towards recovery. His at-home treatments were uncomfortable, and the pain, which Mark described as “a combination of fire ants and pins and needle sensations,” was relentless.
The Switch that he couldn’t previously hold, however, now became invaluable.
“At that point how I operated on a daily basis had to be relearned and modified to accommodate my new life,” said Mark. “But even though I couldn't cook a meal in the kitchen, unscrew a bottle of soda, take my wife to a nightclub, drive my jeep, or sleep on my back yet, I could game just like I did before. I would sit down and start running around in Skyrim getting hit 100 feet in the air by a giant and I'd forget how much discomfort I was in.”
The Rojas siblings. Photo courtesy of Joseph Rojas
Video games proved a connective tissue in the hospital, and that persisted out of it, too.
Mark’s sister, Natalie, admitted the four siblings weren’t all that close before the accident, rarely, if ever, even vocalizing that one another loved each other. Their relationship was taken for granted. But the experience of nearly losing Mark to a fluke changed the dynamic.
“In my head,” said Natalie, “I was like ‘OK, Mark surviving this shit means everything has to change. We have to be in each other's lives. What do we do?’ And the answer was video games. It was such a simple solution to our casual isolation from one another.”
The group now has a regular gaming night every Monday.
“I look forward to Monday nights where we would all just take a pause on whatever is going on and spend an hour playing Mario Kart, Mario Tennis, or Minecraft,” said Mark’s other brother, Vincent. “As a family, we weren’t necessarily open about ourselves or our lives too often. Video games were the medium that got us all comfortable talking and acting like kids again, instead of adults far away from each other.”
“Video games have become for me now much more important than being an outlet and something to do outside of work,” said Mark. “Now, this is something that I do for me, that helps me feel good, even on bad days.”