One can only imagine the happiness and relief the parents of Martin Pistorius felt as he emerged from the coma that had trapped him for over a decade. However, it was to be a short-lived celebration, for Pistorius had something amazing to tell them.
The story started, though, in 1988. At this time, Pistorius was just a happy and healthy kid enjoying his childhood in South Africa. Indeed, no one could have predicted what was about to happen to him – or how it would change his life.
One day in January, Pistorius returned home from school feeling unwell. His scratchy throat, however, would soon develop into an illness so crippling that he’d never see his classroom again.
Pistorius grew weaker as his mystery ailment progressed; he shunned food and needed to sleep for hours on end during the day. This was, though, just the beginning; things were about to get a lot worse.
Indeed, Pistorius soon stopped walking as his muscles began to waste away; his feet and hands had started curling in. His mind began to suffer, too – facts were forgotten and once-familiar faces became unrecognizable.
Months later, when the illness had taken complete hold of Pistorius’ mind and body, he was left in a vegetative state. And to make matters worse, doctors had absolutely no idea what was wrong with him.
Nevertheless, Pistorius’ mom was told that her son would never regain his mental capacity and now had the intelligence of a three-month-old baby. This was how Pistorius remained for the next four years. But then something in Pistorius would begin to change.
“I lay like an empty shell, unaware of anything around me,” wrote Pistorius in an article for the Daily Mail. “Then, one day, I started coming back to life.”
“My mind began to awaken at about the age of 16,” he explained. “By 19 it was fully intact, I knew who I was and where I was, and understood I’d been robbed of a real life. I was completely entombed.”
Locked into his body, fully conscious, Pistorius was aware of everything going on around him. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t will his body to communicate this to those around him. Inevitably, he came to feel as though he was invisible.
His family were getting desperate, too, and Pistorius was fully aware of their torment. “While my father looked after nearly all my daily needs, my mother hardly came near me,” he wrote. “She wanted to put me into full-time residential care.”
Eventually, Pistorius’ mom hit breaking point, and she attempted to take her own life. Fortunately, though, Pistorius’ father managed to get her to hospital before it was too late. What’s more, all the while Pistorius knew what was going on, and yet he could say nothing.
Pistorius made little progress over the years that followed. Simple movements were recognized, but no one seemed to grasp that behind the silence was a fully conscious, emotional and intelligent young man.
“To most people, I resembled a pot plant, to be given water and left in a corner,” wrote Pistorius. “Most carers looking after children like me were good, some were utterly callous.” But one would become his savior and help unlock the door to his prison.
Her name was Virna van der Walt. She was the first person to realize that Pistorius’ simple smiles, nods and gazes might be communication. So, on a day that would be ingrained in Pistorius’ memory forever, he used a combination of these smiles and twitches in responses to her questions to successfully tell her that his brother had bronchitis. It was 2001, and Pistorius was now 25 years old.
At Van Der Walt’s request, Pistorius was taken to the Center For Augmentative And Alternative Communication at the University Of Pretoria, South Africa. Here, his rehabilitation really began, and with the aid of a computer-based communications program, he was able to communicate with his family once more.
After discovering that for years her son could understand her, Pistorius’ mom was devastated. Recalling her deepest regret, she told NBC, “I said to him one day, ‘I hope you die.’ I had no idea that he understood. I am very, very sorry I said it.”
Pistorius, though, went from strength to strength. Indeed, despite being confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak, he eventually mastered his synthetic voice, attended college and, using a specially adapted car, even learnt to drive.
Then, heartwarmingly, he found love. In 2009 Pistorius married Joanna in a ceremony in Essex, U.K., a year after meeting her online. He now lives in the U.K. permanently and works as a web designer.
His wedding day, moreover, remains his most treasured memory. “As I sat with my father waiting for Joanna’s arrival in a horse-drawn carriage, I contemplated the vows I was about to make: ‘For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part,’” wrote Pistorius. “I would never say words that meant more.”