UAB doctor explains cerebral, physical consequences of being in a coma

Local News
October 02 2021 06:00 pm

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – As more Alabamians than ever before during this pandemic are on ventilators, CBS 42 wanted to get a better understanding of what happens to your body physically and mentally from being in a coma.

UAB neuro-intensivist Dr. Angela Hays Shapshak said parts of your brain that need to function to be alert stop working properly. This then alters your consciousness, which could later lead to both physical and mental side effects if you survive.

It’s something Homewood COVID survivor Ben Traylor is now experiencing. We first introduced you to him in August.

“When I woke up, I couldn’t tell the difference between the reality of the dreams and the reality of what was actually my normal life,” Traylor said looking back at his time in the hospital.

His extended time on the ventilator and in a coma caused him to live months of terrible nightmares that he’s now starting to remember.

“When somebody is in a coma because of an overwhelming infection, that is a marker of the severity of illness,” Shapshak said.

Shapshak said COVID-19 can impact the function of the brain – eventually triggering psychiatric problems after surviving that critical illness.

“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if some of our COVID survivors are experiencing hallucinations that they do related to ICU delirium as a result of the infection and also the situation they’re in inside the critical care unit,” she said.

Traylor’s nightmares take him back to his time serving in Afghanistan where he saw his loved ones now in violent situations.

“From the hallucinations, my reality is a little different, but it is getting better,” Traylor said.

Shapshak said these hallucinations could trigger PTSD after a hospital stay in intensive care. Plus, being bedbound makes you lose significant muscle mass. The best medicine – to try and prevent COVID.

“I would really much prefer that everybody get vaccinated and prevent getting it in the first place rather than taking the chances,” she said.

Shapshak said when she does surveys with critical care survivors – most of them don’t remember anything during their time in the hospital or what caused them to get there in the first place. Right now UAB is working with UPMC in Pittsburgh, Pa. to report data about COVID-19 and better understand what happens to the mind when COVID patients are in a coma.

According to Shapshak, it’s too late once you’re in the ICU, but if you do your best to prevent getting sick, you could save a huge burden on you and your family.

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