Sleeping pill 'woke up' man in coma

Time of article published Jun 10, 2006

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By Sheree Russouw

Sienie Engelbrecht is praying for another miracle: that her bedridden, paraplegic son, Louis Viljoen, will one day be able to walk.

"I'm a great believer in miracles," says 57-year-old Engelbrecht as she folds away another newspaper article about her son.

"The Lord already gave us one miracle. Why won't we have two? I know he's listening to my prayers."

Seven years ago, a common sleeping pill, Zolpidem, awoke her brain-damaged son from a three-year coma - making this the first case of its kind in the world.

Louis's Lazarus-like recovery has made headlines with medical professionals heralding it as a medical breakthrough that offers hope for other brain-damaged people.

In the coming months, British company ReGen will begin clinical trials with Zolpidem on 30 coma patients in South Africa, in the hope that the drug will also bring them back to life.

Its effect on Louis has been remarkable, says his mother. Photos of the now 36-year-old man adorn the wall above his bed, marking each of the 10 birthdays he has spent here at the Ikhaya Tini Vorster rehabilitation centre in Dunnottar, near Springs.

Engelbrecht points to a photo showing Louis wearing a suit taken shortly before his vehicle accident.

"He was wearing that same suit in the accident," says Engelbrecht.

In May 1996, the 25-year-old Louis, who was working as a switchboard operator at a hospital, was hit by a truck while riding home on a bicycle.

He was airlifted to Johannesburg Hospital, where doctors diagnosed him as being in a permanent vegetative state (PVS). They told his mother he would never recover.

The next three years were "hell" for Engelbrecht. She visited her son every day - but he could not talk, move or make eye contact with her.

Hope returned in January 1999 after Engelbrecht visited her local doctor, Wally Nel, who prescribed Zolpidem to help her sleep. When she went to visit Louis later, a nurse told her he was "restless and agitated".

"I crushed my sleeping pill and gave it to him. A few minutes later, his face started to change. His eyes that were normally glazed opened. He made a sound and smiled," said Engelbrecht.

"I thought I was dreaming. I said: 'Can you hear me, Louis?' He said: 'Yes.' Then, 'Hello mommy.' I cried."

Exactly how Zolpidem reawakened Louis is "mind-boggling", says Nel. Since then, he and several of his medical colleagues including Dr Ralf Clauss, a consultant in nuclear medicine in Britain, have pioneered research into the phenomenon.

Clauss's scans have revealed that Louis's brain function improved more than 50 percent on Zolpidem. The doctors believe that for every damaged part of the brain, there is a dormant area that acts as a protective mechanism. These dormant cells awaken and get to work if they are stimulated properly, which is what Zolpidem seems to do.

Over the years, Louis's dosage has decreased and now he is often conscious without it. Louis doesn't remember his accident or his coma but recognises family and friends and recounts important dates and even remembers the name of his high school principal.

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