Three years ago, Terri Schiavo sparked a nationwide debate when she was removed from a feeding tube. Schiavo was in a permanent vegetative state with no chance of recovery. But there are as many as 300,000 other Americans who have survived brain injuries, only to be trapped in what's called a "minimally conscious state." They can't talk, walk, or eat, but they retain more mental awareness than vegetative patients.
For decades now, minimally conscious people have been all but written off by the medical establishment, warehoused in nursing homes, with little hope of recovery. But as CNN's Anderson Cooper first reported last fall, incredible new discoveries are changing the way doctors view these people.
It turns out some may have been misdiagnosed and may be more aware than previously thought. What's even more surprising is that after receiving the popular sleeping pill Ambien, some minimally conscious people are actually waking up.
Don Herbert was a firefighter in Buffalo, N.Y. On Dec. 29, 1995, he was battling a house fire when the building's roof collapsed. Don was trapped under a pile of debris and nearly suffocated. A local news camera captured firefighters pulling Don from an attic window. By the time his wife Linda and four sons reached the hospital, Don was already in a coma.
"I remember pleading and begging with him in the hospital when he was unresponsive just, 'Don't leave me, don't leave the kids, you know. We need you, you know. We need you,'" Linda Herbert recalls.
"You'd try to get him to squeeze your hand or move a toe, or something like that it's just, we were looking for just about anything," Don and Linda's son, Don Jr. remembers.
Don Herbert did regain consciousness, but a few months later slipped into a minimally conscious state. He could respond to some stimuli but was unable to communicate. Moved to a nursing home, he was kept alive by a feeding tube.
"I took him to one neurologist. And I was basically begging him, you know, to tell me, 'Is he gonna get better, or isn't he?'" Linda remembers. "And he just sort of said, 'Well, look at him. What do you see? You see what I see, there's nothing there.' And I was just devastated."
While Don languished in the nursing home, years passed and his four boys grew into men. Determined to keep their father in their lives, Linda brought Don to birthdays and holidays, but says he sat slumped in his wheelchair, unaware of his surroundings.
What was it like for the sons to see their father in this state?
"You'd think after ten years of seeing him hooked up to feeding tubes and different machines that you'd sort of get used to it or something. But here, I really never did," Don Jr. explains.
"Yeah. It made me sick to my stomach to go every, you know. I didn't go that often 'cause I just couldn't stand seeing him like that," Tom says.
Then one day, two years ago, the nursing home called with shocking news: Don had woken up and was asking for his family.
One of the nurses lent the Herberts a video camera to record Don's incredible awakening. His first words were a struggle -- he hadn't spoken in nearly a decade.
Family members and buddies from the firehouse rushed to Don's room. Blinded in the accident, Don recognized everyone by their voice -- everyone that is, except his youngest son Nick, who was just four when his dad was injured.
"Did he understand who you were?" Cooper asks Nick.
"He still thought that I was real young. And he went to -- like, put his hand out over me and to see, like, how tall I was," Nick says. "We just kept telling him to raise his hand higher, 'cause he was trying to feel for me down low."
"When he learns that he has been gone for ten years, he seems heartsick about it," Cooper remarks. "The sadness is palpable."
"He felt so bad," Linda says. "He thought, like, he abandoned us. He felt so bad that he wasn't there for the boys."
Don Herbert's reunion with his family was brief. While trying to get out of bed, he fell and suffered another brain injury. He later contracted pneumonia, and less than a year after he woke up, Don Herbert died.