When people find out I came back to life after my friends, family and fellow comedians thought I had died, they want to know how it happened. How did I go from comatose — in diabetic ketoacidosis, with zero kidney function — to standing in front of them, breathing and speaking? I couldn’t even walk when I woke up, so how can I stand at all? Medically and physically, what did it take for me to recover? The answer is complicated and mysterious.
When I was transferred from a hospital in Chicago to one in my hometown of Cincinnati on November 14, 2014, my care improved dramatically. It’s not often that a 30-year-old enters the hospital in a diabetic coma, but the Cincinnati hospital had seen more cases like mine. There, the ICU staff performed a less invasive tracheotomy (a procedure that assists breathing via placing a tube into a person’s windpipe through an opening made in the neck) than the one the Chicago hospital had planned, and they knew how to wean me off the sedatives that kept me unconscious.
I don’t remember waking up, but my dad was in the room when it happened. He’s a doctor and he regularly sees patients in the hospital where I was in the ICU. On one of these rounds, he stopped by my room to see me and talk to me in the hushed tones people reserve for babies, pets and the comatose. In the middle of this one-sided conversation, my eyes blinked open. I had no idea where I was or what had happened to me. Through the mess of tubes coming out of my body, one of which was inside my throat, I mouthed a silent scream: “What. The. Fuck?”
No one really knew the answer to that question. Though the treatment in Cincinnati was more advanced, my return from the brink of death retained an element of the miraculous.
During the immediate recovery phase, my body functioned as little more than a mascot suit. That feeling reflected my emotional state, too. I received so much love from friends in the form of messages, calls and care packages. People were overjoyed to hear I was awake, and they told me my body was strong and resilient. This was completely at odds with the reality of my physical therapy sessions, during which I experienced my physical self at the weakest it’s ever been.
That’s when I realized my coma actually happened to the people around me. For everyone else, my waking up was the happy ending to a horrific story — but for me, another, more painful and complicated story was just beginning.
What I had to go through was the recovery.
“This is not my beautiful house”
To say I woke up “in a new body” is something of an understatement. Though my body changed dramatically, my brain, thankfully, remained the same. Some friends thought my ordeal might inspire me to abandon my fledgling comedy career for the pursuit of medicine. I regret to say a medical degree, and especially its attendant salary, were not part of my recovery miracle. Despite my new casing, I was still a comedian at my core, as anxious and uncertain as ever.
There were emotional challenges, though — the most evident being the flat affect I displayed upon waking up. Flat affect is a condition in which a patient’s emotional expressiveness is severely limited. It manifested itself as a disconnect between my inner monologue and what actually came out of my mouth. For example, I might be conversing with someone at my bedside, and while they were talking, my head would be screaming, “I WAS RAISED EVANGELICAL! I WAS RAISED TO BELIEVE IN LIFE AFTER DEATH, AND I SAW NOTHING! NO WHITE LIGHT. NO OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCE. NOTHING. AND NOW I’M JUST BACK? WHAT IS THIS, AND WHAT AM I?!” This feeling would travel my nervous system and escape my inexpressive mouth as, “Can you ask the nurse for more yogurt?”
The flat affect was just the tip of the iceberg. I suffered a host of other physical effects of the coma. My hands and fingers were numb and had an intention tremor that made them shake anytime I reached to grab an object like a spoon or a cup. The doctors told me this tremor was a symptom of Parkinson’s disease. When I asked them if that meant I had Parkinson’s, they explained to me that having symptoms of Parkinson’s is essentially the same as having Parkinson’s. When I asked again if I had Parkinson’s, they further explained that I was making rapid improvement in many areas and they expected the tremors to improve with time, as well. When I asked one more time, more forcefully, if I had Parkinson’s, they looked at me with an expression that said, “Listen, dude, we’re just happy you’re alive. Let’s be grateful for small victories, shall we?” Thankfully, these symptoms didn’t last forever and I’m writing this with fingers that are tremor-free.
Some time before the coma, at 80 pounds overweight, I decided to get in shape. I lost half of that through a lot of dieting, starvation and P90X. When I woke from the coma, I discovered the other 40 pounds had melted off. If I had known I could drop that weight in a mere month, I might have tried to put myself into a coma earlier. I know that’s dark, but honestly, I looked great. You know how people tend to comment on how good you look right after you’ve had the flu? You know the ends don’t justify the means, but you can’t help but be flattered by the compliment. This was an exponentially more dangerous version of the flu diet.
Inching back from the brink
My weight loss was easiest to see in my legs, which had shriveled during the coma, so I had to relearn how to walk. My first post-coma week started with me vomiting whenever I took too many steps and rinsing my mouth out with hospital water that tasted metallic to my new tastebuds. But I committed to physical therapy and noticed my new body getting stronger. I walked more steadily and for longer periods each time I tried. Within a week, I was walking again unassisted. My walking was wobbly and knock-kneed, but it counted.
Emboldened by my progress, I found new physical limits to push. One evening, I woke in the wee hours of the night and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I remember the hallway light illuminating the cross on the wall in my darkened room in a Catholic hospital. Now would be a good time to try to masturbate, I thought. Thus commenced my first post-coma attempt at self-love. I began to slide my fingers — still numb and trembling — underneath my hospital gown and touch myself to the sexiest thoughts I could summon (mostly attractive nurses from earlier that day). To my semi-surprised pleasure, I noticed a tingle. Immediately following that tingle was an intense burning sensation I can only describe as all the blood vessels that had been asleep with me in the coma waking up at the exact same time — but not just waking up. They sprinted to the kitchen and immediately began pounding grapefruit juice, shouting, “We’re back, baby!” It was that level of acidic burn. I won’t say I gave up trying completely after that, but after a couple repeats of the same experience, I decided to abandon sensuality until I got out of the hospital.
“Let the water hold me down”
Despite not discharging myself, I was finally discharged from the hospital. I had so many plans. There were movies I wanted to see, coffee shops I wanted to visit, meals I wanted to eat.
I promptly did none of those things. Instead, I plopped down onto my parents’ couch and wept for several hours. I knew I had escaped death this time, but suddenly, I saw the reality of death more clearly than ever before. I felt like a puppet whose strings had been cut. How was I supposed to go back to pretending that all the little, everyday things mattered?
Moreover, I discovered I missed the hospital. There, I had a routine and a purpose: I was a sick guy whose job it was to get better. At my parents’ house in Cincinnati, a city in which I hadn’t lived in over a decade, I didn’t know my context. What was I supposed to do in Cincinnati? What would I do when I got back to Chicago? Was I different now? How?
There were so many more new physical experiences to come: weeks of getting used to regular food again, the intense effect of caffeine on my system, a nasty bed sore that took another month to heal and which I’ll describe in disgusting detail in my next installment. But after crying through my uncertainty, I realized there could be layers to this experience of recovery. I didn’t have to have answers to all of these questions or figure anything out definitively. Very simply, I could be a slightly-less-sick guy whose job it was to continue getting better. In a lot of ways, that’s all I am still.
Once I was able to pry myself off that couch, I went up to the bathroom near my childhood bedroom and took a shower. It was my first full shower since waking up from the coma, and it was a two-hour luxury. Because my legs were still untrustworthy, I sat on a little yellow plastic chair from my childhood that served as my “shower stool,” and I began to slough off months of accumulated skin. I scrubbed everywhere. My arms were flaked. My hands were like claws. My feet were crusty talons. I soaped, scrubbed, rinsed and re-soaped the rag, and as I watched all that dead skin flow down the drain, I felt relief. When I got out of the shower, my skin was pink and new. My clothes felt soft and good when I put them on. I felt reborn.