Thursday, October 8, 2009
Medical Reports: Counting on a Coma
Patients living in severe pain are risking their lives choosing to be put into a coma in hopes of waking up pain-free. 7's Lynn Martinez has tonight's special assignment report, Counting on a Coma.
WSVN -- At just 21 years old, Jessica Stevens is willing to risk dying over living the life she has now.
Jessica Stevens: "I live in a hospital bed. I do not get to do anything. It's just not a life."
Her skin is dotted with sores, and every inch of her small body constantly burns with pain.
Jessica Stevens: "I describe it sometimes as having acid being thrown onto my legs. It feels like my head has been smacked against the wall and is throbbing."
Sarah Stevens, mother: "There have been times I have asked God to give the pain to me, even for one day. Just give her one day."
She has to wear sunglasses and headphones to block out most light and sound.
Jessica Stevens: "I hear things probably 30 times louder than they really are. Lights have thrown me into seizures."
Up until a few years ago, Jessica was a healthy and active teenager, but a trip to summer camp changed everything.
Jessica Stevens: "I was bitten by a tick and contracted Lyme disease, and all my problems started from there."
Doctors think the Lyme disease triggered a neurological disorder called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy or RSD.
RSD can be sparked by any sort of injury and targets the nervous system, essentially causing the nerves to malfunction and send constant pain signals to the brain.
Dr. Anthony Kirkpatrick, Medical Director, RSD Treatment Center: "And one of the characteristic symptoms is burning pain, unbearable burning pain."
There is no cure for the disease. Doctors typically treat it with powerful painkillers, which often don't work. Jessica's last hope is a radical and dangerous treatment. She's choosing to be put into a coma with hopes of waking up pain-free.
Jessica Stevens: "It is radical, and it is scary, but the thought of remaining in this condition for the rest of my life is a hell of a lot scarier than going under any treatment in the world."
It's called coma therapy, but it isn't approved by the FDA in the United States. So, Jessica is traveling to Monterrey, Mexico as part of a research study. Doctors will pump her full of a drug called Ketamine, which is an anesthetic and hallucinogenic drug.
Dr. Kirkpatrick: "The amount of Ketamine we use in just one patient is the amount of Ketamine one hospital would use in a whole year."
Sarah Stevens: "Sweet dreams, Jessica. You're going to make it out of this, honey."
Patients are in the coma for five to seven days, kept alive by life support. While they're unconscious, doctors believe the brain shuts down, and then like a computer reboots itself.
Dr. Kirkpatrick: "By shutting the brain down and letting it come back on-line, there can be healing that takes place, not just in terms of pain but in terms of the body as a whole."
About 100 pain patients have joined this coma research study, more than half have ended up pain-free, but doctors admit it's risky.
Dr. Kirkpatrick: "There's no doubt about it that the Ketamine coma study is dangerous. Patients may not wake up from it."
And if they do emerge from the coma, it can be horrifying.
Dr. Kirkpatrick: "They can have hallucinations, terrifying hallucinations, not always, but can happen."
Shannon Stocker was one of the first pain patients to be put into the Ketamine coma several years ago.
Shannon Stocker: "I was in pain all the time. It was as if someone had poured gasoline on me and lit me on fire."
Shannon's husband captured her on home video while she was unconscious and watched as she emerged with terrifying hallucinations.
Greg Stocker: "It's almost like she was a child about to go into a nightmare. She would look at me and say, 'They're coming on, make them stop.'"
Soon the hallucinations disappeared, and something miraculous happened: Most of Shannon's pain was gone. She's returned to a normal life and has even given birth to a baby girl.
Shannon Stocker: "Life is better than I ever dreamed that it could have been."
And that's exactly what Jessica and her family are hoping will happen to her.
Jessica Stevens: "Very easily, just from going into a coma, you could slip away, but that's a risk I'm willing to take, to have a life again."
Jessica did come out of the coma but is having complications. She suffered memory loss and at one point didn't remember who she was. Her memory has returned, but she is now experiencing problems with her vision. Doctors hope Jessica will be able to leave the Mexico hospital in a few months.
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