How mom found the Lazarus pill

2012-08-12 10:00
Eugene Botha
Sienie Viljoen sat by her son’s ­bedside every night for three years, holding his lifeless hand and scanning his vacant eyes for any sign that he was somewhere in his broken body.

Louis was hit by a car in the East Rand town of Springs as he crossed the street. His doctors said he would never regain consciousness.

But he did.

And now the story of how his mother woke him up by chance 13 years ago has led to a new treatment for patients with severe brain injuries that is giving hope to others across the world.

Every evening, Sienie Viljoen visited her comatose son and fed him, praying for a miracle. An unlikely miracle, because medical science accepts that patients who have been in a permanent vegetative state for years after a brain injury, just do not wake up.

But one night in 1999, Louis was restless and his mother phoned her general practitioner, Dr Wally Nel, to ask if she could give Louis one of her sleeping tablets. She had some Stilnox with her, and Nel said she could crush half a tablet and give it to him.

After about 15 minutes, colour returned to Louis’ cheeks. His eyes focused and for the first time in four years she heard his voice: “Hallo Mammie.”

Many others have since followed Louis.

Late last year, 26-year-old Chris Cox of the US, whom doctors said had suffered irreversible brain damage, woke up after being given the same sleeping pill as Louis, which is known in that country as Ambien.

Last December, 23-year-old Australian Sam Goddard, who had suffered eight consecutive strokes, came out of his coma and spoke again.

But back in 1999, Louis fell back into his coma after an hour and a half of blissful wakefulness. The next day his mother tried the pill again and again Louis woke up.

She phoned Nel who did not believe her, but he went to visit them. He was astounded and immediately contacted a number of neurologists.

“They would not believe me, but I was persistent,” he said.

And eventually even the sceptical neurologists witnessed the pill’s effect. There was no medical explanation.

A while later, Professor Ralf Claus, the head of nuclear medicine at Medunsa, heard about the case.

He had just received a new medical scanning machine that could detect brain cell function. He and Nel then scanned Louis’ brain, before and
after he took Stilnox. The results were astounding.

The scans revealed that large areas of Louis’ brain were totally inactive before taking the pill. When the medication took effect, many “dead” brain cells functioned again, until the medication wore off.

There was no precedent and no explanation. During the last 12 years of intensive study, Nel and Claus have concluded that it has something to do with neurotransmitters in the brain.

In healthy people, Stilnox calms the brain and induces sleep, but it has the opposite effect on those with brain injuries.

“In the past we believed that after a brain injury, in the damaged areas, cells were dead for good. Our research has shown that this is not the case. Many brain cells die, of course, but many don’t die and seem to go to sleep. They can be reawakened,” says Claus.

Claus and Nel have since helped hundreds of patients across the world. Claus has moved to the UK, but Nel is still a GP in Springs. They have published a number of scientific papers.

They have also discovered that Stilnox not only helps patients in comas, but those with different kinds of brain injuries, including strokes and cerebral palsy.

“It does not matter how old the brain injury is, the dormant cells can still wake up even after many years,” says Claus.

Further research on Stilnox’s effectiveness is ongoing worldwide.

Louis, however, remains bedridden in the nursing home, but half a tablet twice a day keeps him awake full-time and he continues to improve slowly.

Instead of just holding his hand, his mother now laughs at his jokes and he hugs her when she leaves. “My son was dead. I have my son back,” she says.