Michael Schumacher: An "Awakening"
For those of you who don’t know, Michael Schumacher is a legend. Over the course of his career as a Formula 1 driver, he won 7 world titles (five consecutively) with a total of 91 wins—the most than any other driver ever—racing for the Jordan Grand Prix, Ferrari, Benetton, and Mercedes. Throughout his career, he even survived, with relatively minor injuries, a number of high-speed racing accidents.
Unfortunately, he is also known for a terrible skiing accident almost 6 years ago, which left him in a medically induced coma for six months. Schumacher was on a skiing vacation in Méribel, France during the week of Christmas with family and friends when Sunday, the 23rd of December, tragedy struck. While out skiing with his son, Mick, Schumacher hits a hidden rock with his skies and falls, hitting his head on another snow-covered rock rupturing his helmet. Airlifted immediately to the nearby hospital, Grenoble University Hospital, where he arrives comatose, operated on, and eventually placed into a medically induced coma to help relieve the pressure on his brain.
Private about his personal life before the incident, his family and team kept and continue to keep news about his medical status close to the chest. They have every right to do so, but as fans still wish to hear about Michael, news of his recovery or non-recovery, theories, and general articles about him still come out every so often. The most recent of which occurred in the last week—headlines Michael Schumacher is conscious! Time for celebration!
However, things are not always what they seem. Especially when dealing with traumatic brain injuries.
Thanks in no small part to movies and television, people often imagine that recovery from a coma means going from lying in a bed, eyes closed and unresponsive to the external world, to autonomously walking and talking – virtually back to the person they were before the accident (if not for a deep retrograde amnesia thickening the plot of any good mystery…)! In reality, the trajectory of recovery after traumatic brain injury (TBI) is rarely very linear.
While it is true that many patients after TBI-induced coma recover consciousness and cognitive function (almost) fully within the span of a few months – in fact sometimes, if it weren’t for the little scar at the base of someone’s neck it would be hard to imagine they were inches away from not surviving – the story is very different for that sliver of patients who do not recover fully and remain in the limbo of a disorder of consciousness for over a year. Coma is actually a transitory state, lasting up to three weeks, after which people either 1) recover consciousness, 2) pass away, or 3) enter a (potentially life-long) a vegetative state (VS; in Europe it is also referred to as unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, UWS). Like coma, VS patients are unresponsive and appear unconscious. Nonetheless, they open and close their eyes periodically. If patients further recover, they might enter a minimally conscious state (MCS)(Monti, 2010), and it is here that we being to see signs of consciousness such as voluntarily tracking objects or following commands like squeezing the doctor’s fingers when asked. Steps of recovery after this point include return of speech, more motor movements, and some cognitive skills. Recovery from TBI is unfortunately slow and unknown—what skills, motor or cognitive, a patient will recover are hard to predict and often do not return to their previous capabilities – most typically resulting in lifelong complete dependence.
Although Michael Schumacher was in a medically induced coma, we know that after six months he was eventually taken off of the medication and emerged from coma. In fact, articles at the time stated that the champion “awoke” after two operations before being discharged and going home to continue with therapy at Lake Geneva, Switzerland (“Schumacher has ‘conscious moments,’” 2014). Since then, articles have come out every few years giving a few glimpses into his recovery. In 2016, Schumacher’s family was forced to reveal some of his status after a newspaper Die Bunte reported that he could walk (Coppinger, 2016). As per the court filing, he could neither walk nor stand at the time. In July of this year, his manager revealed further details saying that while Schumacher was making progress, he continued to have difficulties communicating (Chazan, 2019). The most recent news from this month come from voices within l’Hôpital européen Georges-Pompidou in France where it is said that Schumacher is undergoing an experimental stem cell treatment by Philippe Menasché a cardiac surgeon of international fame and a pioneer in stem cell treatments (Prescott, 2019). Therefore, this new “news” of Schumacher’s return of consciousness does not appear to be as astonishing as it would seem. Based on previous articles, Schumacher has been in a minimally conscious state since his recovery from coma and continues to undergo therapies to help him regain some of his abilities.
We as humans relish news and stories about severe injuries and miraculous recoveries, and we as fans hope to hear them. But it is important to remember that with these types of injuries and when dealing with consciousness nothing is as simple as “waking up.”
Chazan, D. (2019, July 30). Michael Schumacher 'making progress' in recovery from severe head injuries. The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/07/30/michael-schumacher-making-progress-recovery-severe-head-injuries/
Coppinger, M. (2016, September 20). Lawyer refutes report, says Michael Schumacher 'cannot walk' or stand. USA Today. Retrieved from https://eu.usatoday.com/story/sports/motor/formula1/2016/09/19/michael-schumacher-lawsuit-die-bunte/90711600/
Monti, M. M., Laureys, S., & Owen, A. M. (2010). The vegetative state. Bmj, 341, c3765.
Prescott, E. (2019, September 16). Michael Schumacher released from hospital - Hope for fans after experimental treatment. Express. Retrieved from https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1178779/michael-schumacher-health-latest-hospital-paris-f1-ferrari-racing-news
“Schumacher has 'conscious moments' – agent” (2010, April 4). BBC. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26885624.