Letter to my son about comas

Alan Jones
3 min readAug 5, 2023

When I was a wardsman at Westmead Hospital (about your age) I worked a lot on neurology wards and ICU because my job was mostly to help lift and turn patients so they didn’t get bed sores, and people in a coma can’t do it themselves, obviously.

I very clearly remember neurologists beginning to experiment with CAT (Coma Arousal Therapy) where they’d use various stimuli to try and reach the mind of the person in the coma and try to help bring them back to the surface of consciousness. It was memorable mainly because there was often quite a bit of shouting and swearing from loved ones, which is uncommon in a hospital setting! They’d also try pricking fingers and the arch of the foot with pins, sliding an ice cube on their skin, or brushing them with feathers.

I worked there for about three years before I went off to work at another hospital a bit closer to where I was living, and whole three years I was there, one of the patients I helped turn and wash several times a day was a young 15–16 year old girl who’d suffered a brain injury in a car crash. Me and a nurse would probably spend about two hours a day with her, because safely moving someone who is often rigid and unmoving is pretty tricky.

Anyway, I came back from the other hospital for a few months to work again at Westmead and one day this young woman and her parents came in to visit and thank the staff who’d cared for her. She still had some mobility and speech issues but she could walk and talk unassisted. I didn’t even recognise her.

She came up and introduced herself and told me she didn’t know what I looked like but she remembered my voice very clearly, and she thanked me for helping her for three years. She remembered many of the other staff’s voices too, she said.

She’d never once opened her eyes or responded to any stimuli while I’d worked there, not even to coma arousal therapy, and when I’d left the hospital it was generally assumed she’d be in a coma for the rest of her life.

Many patients do spend the rest of their lives in a coma, or die suddenly of a lung or bowel infection made worse by their immobility. Some just waste away no matter how we try to help.

But some are floating, just beneath the surface of consciousness, lost in a dream.

All of which is a long way around saying that you can bet your fucking life I’ll be shouting at your lazy fucking comatose arse until I make myself hoarse, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Just in case you’re still there.

I think I’ll brush your fingers with a gaming controller too.



Alan Jones

I’m a coach for founders, partner at M8 Ventures, angel investor. Earlier: founder, early Yahoo product manager, tech reporter. Latest: disrupt.radio