Imagine one day, completely out of the blue, you suddenly start feeling out of sorts. Nothing too intense at first, but just enough to be concerned. Then, over the next few days, this illness doesn’t shake, before getting noticeably worse, until eventually you find yourself lying in a hospital bed with a doctor telling you they need to indefinitely put you into an induced coma for you to have any chance of staying alive.
It sounds like a fever dream, but was the real-life experience of Lauren Banton Williams, 28, who – roughly this time last year – was suddenly taken ill with a heart condition called fulminant Myocarditis, which is essentially an inflammation of the heart, most often caused by viral infections and autoimmune disorders. Lauren was put into an induced coma for under three weeks as a result, during which she suffered a cardiac arrest that essentially stopped her heart beating for 30 minutes straight. Against all the odds – and I mean the odds of her surviving this were literally 0.1 percent – she is still alive today.
I spoke to her to find out what it was like to be in a coma and come so close to death.
VICE: Do you remember what it was like to fall into the coma?
Lauren Banton Williams: The last thing I remember before I became unconscious was being told I was going to be put into a coma, but that they weren’t sure for how long. They estimated around two weeks. I was really unhappy about it as it was just a few days before my birthday and I had plans! When I realised I was definitely going to miss my birthday I started to fret about whether I would definitely be awake for Christmas. The doctors told me they weren’t sure of anything, but that going into a coma was my only chance of survival. I began explaining frantically that I would very much like to stay alive. One of the last things I did before falling unconscious was to look down at my chest and say, "Come on, little heart, you can do it." I knew at this point that there was a chance I may never wake up, but I had to believe there was some hope I would pull through.
Were you in any way conscious of your time being in a coma?
My time in the coma was pretty much like being asleep for weeks – I have no recollection of being aware of anything that happened while I was unconscious, or any of the things people said to me. However, I have been told that at one point, when I lifted up my hand to put it to my mouth, where my ventilation tube was, my consultant instructed me to put my hand back down to my side and I did, so maybe something was getting through.
So you don't ever have any dreams or subconscious memories of your time in the coma?
I have memories, but when I say "memories" I'm not sure whether they were dreams or what. The most memorable dream was that I'd been put back together and different body parts had been made of wood. I was waiting in some sort of mechanism with lots of other bodies for my turn to leave, and the exit was through a mechanical claw that periodically opened slightly, and bodies were pushed through and fell into a muddy field…it was bizarre.
Were you ever conscious of being close to death?
When I had my cardiac arrest it was just under an hour after I was made unconscious, and my mum was the first person to notice I'd gone cold all over, as she was holding my hand. She alerted the nurse seconds before all the machines went off. I had absolutely no idea it was happening.
What did it feel like when you finally woke up?
My first memory comes a couple of days after being woken up, and it's of seeing my brothers and putting out my hands to hold theirs, but I wasn’t able to talk as I had no voice, because the ventilation tube had done quite a lot of damage. I remember feeling a motion, like we were on the deck of a boat. I had absolutely no idea what had happened to me or why I was in hospital, but I do remember feeling relieved to see faces of people I loved – and I remember it bringing tears to my eyes.
"I didn’t make contact with my friends, or even want to look at my phone, for week or two after waking up, because I found that I coped better with my situation if I didn’t see it in the context of my life previously."
What was it like catching up with everything you’d missed?
I remember being very surprised when I asked what the date was. I didn’t make contact with my friends, or even want to look at my phone, for week or two after waking up, because I found that I coped better with my situation if I didn’t see it in the context of my life previously; knowing that I had all these friends who were living their lives like normal only made me feel like my situation was even more awful.
What do you think was the biggest misconception you had about comas that you now know to be untrue or wildly different from the reality?
I guess the most common misconception would be that someone in a coma can hear or feel what is going on around them. I think that maybe subconsciously they can sense certain things, but on the whole I think they are completely disconnected. I also think an important point that people might not understand is that it's actually quite difficult for doctors to bring someone out of their coma when they feel the time is right; it often takes lots of tries, and the process can last a long time and be distressing for everyone involved.
Have you had to change your behaviour drastically as a result of being in the coma?
More as a result of having something go so drastically wrong with my heart rather than as a result of being in a coma, but yes, I have changed my behaviour in some ways. I cannot say whether I definitely have had to or whether it's what comes from facing your mortality head-on, but I have a desire to take better care of myself – a realisation that life is precious and I want to hold on to it tighter. Basically, I don’t party as much as I used to! I like early bedtimes and early mornings, and the "fuck it" attitude has disappeared.
How has being in a coma changed your view on life and death?
I think about life and death now a lot more than I used to. I know that sounds bleak, but I can’t help it: death is a part of life, and coming so close to it has made me realise that. I feel like I've gained more respect for life. I had to fight really hard to keep mine, and a lot of the time I was in a ridiculous amount of pain or feeling the awful effects of being on and off such high doses of opiates. It was a very scary and lonely experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Have your life priorities changed since you've fully recovered?
Since the experience my values and priorities have become a lot clearer. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I know more than ever what matters to me. My family have always been important to me, but now in a different way – I put them before anything else. I also feel that they, more than anyone else, have some idea of what the experience was like for me. They felt the effects really firsthand, so in a way I feel like it’s easier to relate to them than anyone else. I guess all I want is to be surrounded by people who I care about and, vice versa, be happy and healthy. It's the same stuff I’ve always wanted, except now I don’t need all the extra bits.
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