“I reacted how I always did when my body behaved in a way I found unpalatable: I ignored it,” the Carmichael Show writer and Comedy Central producer writes in an essay for Lena Dunham’s new email newsletter, Lenny.
But the “cold” wasn’t having it. Although she soldiered through work, dance classes, and dates, it did not clear up, prompting her to visit a local clinic. From there, Gordon was rushed immediately to the hospital for life-threatening respiratory distress and placed in a medically induced coma.
“My vitals were unstable,” Gordon explains. “I didn’t leave the hospital for almost a month. I had lung surgery. I was under for about 12 days, and I emerged dotted and crisscrossed with scars.”
Gordon’s piece explores what it’s like to enter a coma and come out the other side — which is still mysterious to doctors and researchers, according to neurointensivist Stephan Mayer, MD, director of neurocritical care at Mount Sinai Health System, who works regularly with coma patients.
“She suffered a near-death experience and does correctly make the distinction that she was in a medically induced coma,” he tells Yahoo Health. “It is very much a hazy, netherworld-like experience.”
Here are more insights from life inside, and just beyond, the coma.
A medically induced coma is different from one caused by a trauma. With prolonged unconsciousness after a stroke, infection, or lack of oxygen, the brain is shutting down — and will experience a total “reboot,” slowly learning new skills and responses over time.
A coma like Gordon’s is induced to slow and protect the brain as illness progresses and options begin to dwindle. “Doctors are basically putting you on a partial, prolonged anesthesia,” says Mayer. “In this case, she was under for just about two weeks.”
During that time, you’re not awake but your brain is still registering its surroundings in fits and bursts. Patients often report details and strange thoughts while under. Gordon doesn’t remember doctors inducing her coma, but describes the experience as “one long, rambling dream.” She recalls bright lights, nurses speaking in medical terms, and that her boyfriend was wearing glasses (a rarity in public).
“At one point, I became convinced that I was locked in a facility against my will and started plotting my escape,” Gordon says. “My main oppressor was a male nurse with hands made out of Jolly Ranchers, which in reality was probably the sticky surgical tape that was all over me, keeping all my monitors in place. It’s fascinating what the mind will do to make sense out of confusion.”
Mayer says this type of experience is very common in medically induced comas. “What happens is that you have glimpses of awareness,” he explains. “It’s sort of like an old TV with static. It’s just lots of fuzz until the picture comes on for just a minute — and then, boom, gone again. What you end up with is a collection of disjointed, disconnected glimmers of awareness.”
The brain is always grasping for a narrative, says Mayer, even when it’s only in a partially conscious state.