Such was the force of Carol Brothers’ cardiac arrest, her heart stopped beating for more than 45 minutes, and she was in a coma by the time she had been airlifted to hospital.
There, at Bath’s Royal United, she was kept for three days on life support, before consultants told her loved ones to prepare for the worst.
‘We were called in to a family room to say she was basically brain dead and there was nothing they could do,’ recalls her daughter Maxine, 51. ‘She was put on a pathway to die.’
The stricken family — Carol’s husband David, her sister and sons Tony, 53, and Paul, 50 —agreed Carol should be taken off her support and said their goodbyes. ‘They said it would be the kindest thing to do,’ says Maxine.
‘We couldn’t face being there while they unplugged the machines. We wanted to remember her like she was.’
So Maxine busied herself comforting her distraught father. Carol’s death was announced in her church. ‘We kept expecting to get the call saying she’d slipped away,’ recalls Maxine, adding, with a quiet laugh that, eight years on, is still tinged with shock ‘ . . .but she didn’t.’
When Samantha Baker was told her three-week-old baby Harrison Ellner was brain dead, and that if he did survive his meningitis, he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or feed himself, she agreed that his life support should be turned off
Astonishingly, two days after Carol’s life support machine was turned off, she regained consciousness.
Perhaps even more astonishingly, she regained brain function. Far from seeing out the rest of her days in a vegetative state, Carol, 71, enjoys gardening, hiking and 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzles.
‘Technically, I suppose I was dead,’ she says. ‘But for some reason my time wasn’t up. Doctors were astounded.’
Last week, Lewis Roberts, 18, was ‘certified dead’ by doctors at Royal Stoke Hospital in Staffordshire after being hit by a van in his nearby hometown of Leek. The coroner had been notified and the family had agreed to donate his organs.
Yet just as his life support machine was about to be turned off, Lewis started breathing again. His sister Jade, 28, declared hospital staff and family alike amazed by the ‘miracle’.
He has since started reacting to pain tests, blinking and moving his limbs. His story, symbolic for this past Easter weekend of new beginnings, begs the question: for every dire diagnosis, if there is life, is there still hope? And at what point should that hope be quashed?
Incredibly, however, Harrison carried on breathing. Today, he is a music-mad eight-year-old who leads a life much the same as any other boy his age. His story, symbolic for this past Easter weekend of new beginnings, begs the question: for every dire diagnosis, if there is life, is there still hope?
Of course, there is often no option but to turn life support off. But as this investigation found, miracles can, and do, happen.
Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for Right To Life UK, a charity advocating a right to life from conception to natural death, describes Lewis Robert’s story as an ‘inspiration’ stressing: ‘Our lives are always of intrinsic value. For any families facing the same situation with a loved one who is on life support, this sends a very clear message: don’t give up hope.’
Dr Mark Pickering of Care not Killing, an organisation promoting palliative care, says mistakes can happen during end-of-life decision-making, which is ‘often complex and can be highly uncertain,’ adding: ‘It is essential subjective judgments about quality of life are not brought in inappropriately, or too soon.
‘If brain damage is really so severe that the brain stem, which controls breathing, has ceased to function, as well as the higher parts of the brain that control consciousness and other functions, then it is appropriate to remove life support and let natural death continue to take its course.
‘However, it can be a real challenge to determine whether brain stem death has actually occurred.’
Medical advances mean once finite boundaries between life and death have blurred, and even the most critically ill patients can now recover.
As Professor Sam Parnia, resuscitation expert and author of The Lazarus Effect, explained in the world’s largest study of near death experiences, published in 2014, involving 2,060 patients: ‘Death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs and brain to cease functioning.’
Not that Maxine was expecting a miracle when her mother collapsed after the pair had been grocery shopping in February 2013.
By the time doctors asked Carol’s family for their permission to withdraw life support the following Monday, Carol had suffered seizures and scans suggested she was brain dead.
Last week, Lewis Roberts, 18, was ‘certified dead’ by doctors at Royal Stoke Hospital in Staffordshire after being hit by a van in his nearby hometown of Leek. Yet just as his life support machine was about to be turned off, Lewis started breathing again
Her loved ones’ decision, while painful, was straightforward: Carol and David — who’d suffered ill health for years and died six years after his wife’s collapse — had recently discussed what would happen if either of them should fall gravely ill.
‘We didn’t want to partially exist and have everyone do everything for us,’ explains Carol, a retired poultry farmer, who despite her recovery maintains that stance. ‘I’d hate to risk being in that position again.’
Her family was told that once the machine was removed Carol would be moved to a quiet end-of-life room.
‘They said it could take a couple of hours, six or 12,’ recalls Maxine, who held her mum’s hand as she told her she loved her and said goodbye.
Back at her parents’ home, she says, Carol’s husband of 46 years was ‘in absolute pieces’ as the family dealt with the practicalities of imminent death. ‘We wanted to keep busy.
‘All of Tuesday was spent waiting for that call.’ After 24 hours, however, it had yet to materialise. ‘Something in the back of my mind didn’t feel right,’ says Maxine. On Wednesday she returned and was pulled aside by a doctor. ‘He said: “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your mum is showing signs of recovery.” ’
Carol had been spotted moving her eyes and wiggling her fingers. When Maxine held her mother’s hand, she gently clasped it back.
‘She said three little words to me,’ recalls Maxine. ‘She said: “I’m coming home.” It was a little tiny faint whisper.’
Maxine’s delight was tempered with trepidation, however. ‘At the back of my mind I had no idea how damaged her brain would be,’ she says.
Ellie Dunkerton, 22, believes doctors were only days away from suggesting to her mother, Clare, that her life support be removed after she was put into a coma having suffered a brain bleed. Although she wears a brace to strengthen her right foot and her right arm is still weak, Ellie, from Tredegar, South Wales. is otherwise healthy and hoping to return to her hairdressing job this year
For Carol, who still ‘hopes there’s something else’ after death, there was no vision of an afterlife while in a coma. No recollections at all, in fact.
As days passed, and condolence cards flooded in to David, she became more lucid. ‘Doctors were shocked,’ says Carol ‘They said there was very little brain damage.’
The family harbours no resentment towards the hospital for suggesting her life support be turned off. ‘They did what they thought was appropriate,’ says Carol, while Maxine points out, ‘45 minutes is a long time without a heartbeat.’
Indeed, doctors have long believed if someone’s heart doesn’t beat for more than 20 minutes, their brain could suffer irreparable damage.
But Professor Parnia, a Brit who trained at London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ and is now Associate Professor of Medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center, has said that the decision to stop at 20 minutes is ‘completely arbitrary’.
Advances in resuscitation, such as a cooling treatment, commonly used on comatose patients, which can slow brain deterioration, can improve outcomes for those showing minimal brain function.
During the high-profile cases of babies Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans — whose parents unsuccessfully fought doctors to pursue experimental treatments in 2017 and 2018 respectively — debate over end-of-life care was brought into focus.
Making a decision to turn off an adult’s life support is one thing. But what if the patient is a child?
When Samantha Baker was told her three-week-old baby Harrison Ellner was brain dead, and that if he did survive his meningitis, he wouldn’t be able to walk, talk or feed himself, she agreed that his life support should be turned off.
‘Doctors said we had to make the decision,’ says Samantha, 27, a carer from Rotherham, who agreed to remove Harrison’s ventilator so she could be closer to her son during his final days.
Incredibly, however, Harrison carried on breathing. Today, he is a music-mad eight-year-old who leads a life much the same as any other boy his age.
‘I think of him as my miracle baby. Doctors said they’d never seen a case like his,’ says Samantha, who also has a daughter, Hallie, five.
The drama started in January 2013, when to his parents’ horror, their tiny baby suddenly appeared lifeless. He was rushed to Intensive Care at Rotherham Hospital, where he had to be resuscitated twice after his heart stopped. Preparations were then made to transfer him to the better-equipped Sheffield Children’s Hospital.
Doctors warned Samantha, and Harrison’s dad Adam, their son might not survive the stress of the journey and so, if it was their intention, they should christen him before he left.
The hospital priest was called.
‘I was heartbroken. He looked so helpless I just wanted to pick him up, but we couldn’t touch him,’ says Samantha, who split from Harrison’s father in 2018.
The following day, Harrison was diagnosed with meningitis. He was given an antibiotic drip but could only breathe unaided for brief periods.
Four days later, she and Adam agreed Harrison would be put on an end-of-life plan at nearby Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice.
‘Doctors said he was going to die. We wanted to spend his last moments holding him,’ says Samantha.
On the evening of January 31, she held her baby as a doctor at the hospice removed the ventilator from Harrison’s throat.
‘They walked out to give us time alone and we sat with him for hours, crying,’ says Samantha. ‘Doctors said he could keep breathing for a minute, an hour, or a day.’
Incredibly, however, Harrison kept breathing and every breath becoming more regular. ‘Shock overruled every other emotion,’ says Samantha, later diagnosed with PTSD as a result of her ordeal.
After five days, her baby was transferred back to Rotherham Hospital, where he remained for a further ten days. When he was discharged, doctors weren’t sure his brain would function well enough for him to lead a normal life.
Yet Harrison learned to smile at eight weeks and walk as a toddler. Although brain damage means he has a learning age of a boy three years younger, Samantha says, ‘if you saw him you wouldn’t know what he’d been through’.
Ellie Dunkerton, 22, believes doctors were only days away from suggesting to her mother, Clare, that her life support be removed after she was put into a coma having suffered a brain bleed.
‘My mum was told there was a risk of brain death and doctors said if I did survive I’d never walk or talk again,’ says Ellie, from Tredegar, South Wales.
Although she wears a brace to strengthen her right foot and her right arm is still weak, she is otherwise healthy and hoping to return to her hairdressing job this year. ‘They said to my mum I wouldn’t last the night,’ says Ellie. ‘I want to show there’s always hope.’
In April 2017, aged 18, she noticed her speech slurring and she was struggling to move her right arm and leg. ‘I tried to cry but couldn’t make any noise,’ says Ellie, who was rushed by ambulance to Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil.
She had a brain arteriovenous malformation (AVM) — a congenital tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain, that had ruptured.
‘I asked a nurse if that meant she could die and she said she was “very sorry, but yes,” ’ recalls Clare, 46, who works in a laundrette.
Put into a coma to relieve pressure on her brain, Ellie was transferred to the neurology department at Cardiff and Vale University Hospital. While unconscious, she recalls her mother speaking to her.
‘I remember her saying if I woke up she’d give me a dog,’ recalls Ellie. ‘I felt like I was suffocating, then I could just see white light. My mum thinks I died and was brought back to life.’ Her first words on regaining consciousness after two days were a whispered, ‘it’s too soon, Mum’. Clare adds: ‘Her doctors couldn’t believe it, and said her recovery would take months or years.’
Yet, after three weeks, Ellie was moved to Rookwood Rehabilitation Centre in Cardiff, where she stayed for three months. The following October her body was strong enough to undergo ten hour brain surgery to remove the AVM.
Radiotherapy in December 2019 removed the remaining traces and a brain scan this February revealed it had all gone. Clare, who fulfilled her promise and bought Ellie a Staffordshire bulldog terrier called Enzo, says she wouldn’t have agreed to turn her daughter’s life support off when she was in a coma, had it been suggested.
‘Months later, I saw her doctor and he told me he had been sure she wouldn’t walk or talk again. You have to carry on hoping. You never know.’