Emerging from a Coma
Carla Rivers writes three letters, “m” “o” “m”, on a piece of paper and places it on her son Devon’s lap, then looks intently into the 11-year-old’s blue eyes as he sits in bed in a rehab center outside Portland, Ore. Silently struggling to imitate her, Devon scrawls one squiggle after another until he ekes out two perfect letters, an “m” and “o.” A seemingly small feat, but to Devon it’s enormous. “Every morning I need to pinch myself,” says his father, Roger, 49, “to make sure this isn’t a dream.”
For the Riverses, a nightmare has ended. It has been more than two years since their son, for reasons his doctors have yet to understand, lapsed into a vegetative state, able to open his eyes but otherwise lost to his family. While experts doubted Devon’s condition would improve, the family clung for month after month to slender hopes until, in August, their prayers were answered with an awakening that has left even medical authorities dumbfounded. “To see a child in his state come out of it,” says Dr. Jamshid Ghejar, a neurosurgeon at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center (who has not treated Devon), “it’s truly remarkable.”
And so is the way the couple and their children—daughters Kylee, 19, and Shaila, 17, and son Brakken, 4—have weathered the ordeal. “We pulled together,” says Roger, “at the worst possible time in our lives.” That chapter began on Oct. 7, 2004, when Devon, an athletic 9-year-old with a passion for cars and fishing, began convulsing uncontrollably in his Yamhill, Ore., school gym. Initially diagnosed with rheumatic fever, he had such severe convulsions, says Carla, 45, that “he was shaking off his bed.” Ten days later, in the hospital, he lapsed into unconsciousness; Devon’s last words, says Carla, were “Mom, help.”
No one could. Unable to pinpoint a cause, “I thought there was no hope for recovery,” says Dr. Amy Kao, Devon’s neurologist. Within weeks the family moved the boy to a nursing home, where he languished, hooked up to feeding and breathing tubes and only occasionally opening his eyes. Roger couldn’t bring himself to go fishing. “I would imagine Devon sitting in the bow with a big smile on his face,” he says, “and the tears would block my vision.” Sister Kylee was so heartbroken that she moved in with relatives in Utah. “It was painful being around things that reminded me of Devon,” she says.
But Carla held out hope, regularly visiting the Gresham, Ore., nursing home, where she would read Dr. Seuss books to her still, silent son. At home the family prayed together for Devon and prepared a room for his homecoming. “Regardless of where Devon was going on his journey,” says his sister Shaila, “the family would be there for each other.”
The five were shopping at a thrift store on a visit to West Jordan, Utah, in August of this year when Devon’s nurse rang Carla’s cell phone. The news was startling: Devon’s eyes had begun tracking movement, a sign he was emerging into consciousness. “I was laughing, crying, screaming,” says Carla, who rushed with the family to Gresham, where they discovered Devon sitting up in a wheelchair and breathing on his own for the first time since 2004. “I had goose bumps,” says Roger. “It was a miracle.”
By all appearances, Devon was emotional too, occasionally crying inconsolably. “Perhaps it was that the feelings were overwhelming,” says his nurse Bev Holland. “Who knows what he was piecing together?” Within a month he was solving simple puzzles and steering a remote-control toy Corvette around obstacles. Soon he could feed himself with a spoon, say a few words and write his name. “He even puts three curls in the letter ‘e’ the way he used to,” says Shaila.
Though doctors may never know what caused Devon’s illness (Carla wonders if medication could have worsened his condition) and can’t predict his long-term recovery, they are pleased with his progress: Devon paid a brief visit home in November, and with daily physical and speech therapy, he could be there for good by Christmas. “He is going to have to work 100 percent,” says Carla. “But it’s the faith, with the work, that makes miracles.”