Every five seconds, someone in this country suffers a traumatic brain injury; a third of those cases will be severe enough to cause a coma. Doctors often tell families to constantly talk to their loved ones, even if they're unconscious, but the question has always been: Can they hear?
For the first time, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy, science may have an answer.
Four years ago Godfrey Catanus had his hands full. He was a new dad and an inspirational youth pastor in Southern California. He led groups of volunteers who helped rebuild after Hurricane Katrina and traveled to the Philippines on a charity mission. But then a blood clot in his liver sent the 32-year-old and his wife Corinth rushing to the hospital.
"He had 3 1/2 feet of intestine taken out and then he had a brain hemorrhage that required nine hours of surgery," Corinth said.
A medically-induced coma saved his life, but doctors feared Godfrey would never wake up.
The sedatives wore off and doctors informed his wife he was still comatose.
"It's devastating; devastating this person that I love most in this world -- this is my kid's father -- just completely devastated," said Corinth, but she never lost hope and talked to her husband constantly.
"I would tell him he needs to get out of his coma, just prayed, read to him, how his daughter was doing and how I was doing. I was pregnant with our second daughter at the time," she said.
Neuroscientist Theresa Pape believes in the healing power of voices.
In a groundbreaking Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA Hospital clinical study, Pape performed brain scans on 15 coma patients, including Godfrey. The results of that study, released Thursday, show that when patients heard unfamiliar voices, brain scans showed little activity, but when they heard close relatives calling out their names or talking, the scans lit up.
"A very severely injured brain can be worked with and can be rehabilitated," Pape said.
Pape's team also asked the families to record stories loved ones would recognize and play them repeatedly for a month and a half using headphones. The stories were played for eight of the patients, including Godfrey. The other seven only heard silence. The eight patients that heard the stories recovered significantly faster.
"Just like doing jumping jacks over and over again, we think we're exercising those connections in the brain and we think that's helping us see the recovery of awareness," Pape said.
Corinth's recording was about a promise kept on their wedding day.
"Hey Pe, we have a funny story about our first kiss, don't we?" Corinth says on the recording. "I told you how I made a commitment that I wanted to save the first kiss for the altar on the wedding day."
"Through that six weeks we did see a big change," Corinth said. "He came from a point where there was just nothing to a point where he could communicate through eye gazes, nod his head."
After three months, Godfrey came out of his coma severely disabled, but cognitively intact. He writes devotionals for his church with his iPad, which helps him communicate.
He said he remembers hearing those voices while in the coma.
"I thought it was comforting to think they were there with me," Godfrey said through his iPad.
"I understand that we're on a long journey, but at least we're doing this journey together," Corinth added. "Don't assume that just because they cannot speak or they don't open their eyes that they're not there."
The Northwestern Medicine and Hines VA study is available in the journal "Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair."