Fireman Speaks Ten Years After Brain Injury From Accident

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   May 6, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
May 6, 2005

Buffalo, NY ( — Medical experts are stunned by the recovery of a firefighter who recently began speaking nearly ten years after a brain injury had left him virtually mute.

"We really don’t know for sure what’s going on," Anthony Stringer, director of neuropsychology in the department of rehabilitation medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine told the Associated Press.

Forty-three-year-old Donald Herbert has been living at a nursing home in suburban Buffalo for more than seven years. In 1995, the roof of a burning house collapsed on him. Having gone without oxygen for several minutes before he was rescued, he showed little awareness of his environment.

However, last Saturday he suddenly asked for his wife Linda. For 14 hours, he then proceeded to talk with her, his four sons, and other family and friends.

Herbert asked, "How long have I been away?"

His uncle, Simon Manka, informed the media, "We told him almost 10 years. He thought it was only three months."

Manka said staff members at the nursing facility noticed a change in Herbert when he began making specific requests.

"The word of the day was ‘amazing,’" Manka told the media.

While the firefighter’s case is unusual, it is not unique. Some brain-damaged patients do show sudden improvement after a number of years.
In 2003, for instance, an Arkansas man who had been largely mute for 19 years after a car accident shocked his mother by saying "Mom" and asking for a Pepsi.

Likewise, Tennessee police officer Gary Dockery, who was left paralyzed and mute after a 1988 shooting, started talking to his family one day in 1996, telling jokes and talking about yearly winter camping trips.

What can explain these miraculous recoveries?

Experts say one possibility is that the brain might have been impaired not just from the injury, but from some other condition, such as an infection or seizure. When the other condition is treated or removed, the individual’s mental state improves.

For instance, some individuals have longstanding but subtle seizures after a head injury that can cause confusion and when they are treated, "Boom, people get better," Dr. James Bernat, a neurology professor at Dartmouth University told the AP. "I’ve seen that happen."

Bernat adds that liver disease, lung trouble, anemia, infections, and diabetes can also lead to neurological problems.

"I’m not saying that’s the case here (with the firefighter)," Bernat told the AP. "But these are the kinds of details we would need to know in order to properly interpret what happened."

Dr. Jack Parent, an assistant neurology professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, told the AP that scientists have only recently come to appreciate how much potential the brain has for self-repair.

If a person’s motivation is hampered, Parent told the AP, "you could look a lot more impaired than your brain actually is." If the brain’s neuronal circuitry is damaged and then gets repaired, it could produce a sudden improvement.

Meanwhile, Michael Powel, a neurosurgeon at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, told the BBC he had not seen anything similar in his 25 years as a specialist.