Have you seen the movie Awakenings with Robin Williams? It’s based on a true story about a doctor who figured out a way to wake up patients from their catatonic state.
Well, it’s happened again!
April Burrell was catatonic for over 20 years after suddenly becoming unresponsive at just 21 years old. To say this story is baffling doctors and astonishing to everyone who hears it is the understatement of the decade.
Since her awakening, there has been a growing interest from the medical community and the public to better understand April’s experience. And, of course, everyone wants to know if her story is actually as unbelievable as it sounds…
While studying to become an accountant at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 1995, April experienced a sudden onset of catatonia. Catatonia has multiple diverse causes but generally involves being awake but seemingly unaware and unresponsive to surroundings. This left her unable to perform basic tasks such as washing and feeding herself and even recognizing her loved ones. She was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia and was then moved to a mental hospital in New York.
Dr. Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, first met April in 2000 when he was still a student. She was the first patient he ever saw. And he still believes, to this day, her to be one of the sickest patients he’s ever seen. In 2018, Dr. Markx discovered that, in addition to her schizophrenia diagnosis, April also had lupus, an autoimmune disorder that can attack the brain. The cause is not fully understood, but a viral infection, some medications, sunlight, puberty, and menopause are all thought to be possible causes.
Brain scans showed evidence that April’s immune system was attacking her temporal lobes, which are vital for processing information, emotions, and language. April’s case was unusual as lupus usually attacks areas like the skin, joints, kidneys, and heart, not the brain. And in her case, the condition was only attacking the brain, meaning there were no other, more obvious, symptoms showing she had the condition.
After being treated for the illness and undergoing a series of cognitive tests, April suddenly woke up in 2020. Because she woke up during the height of COVID-19, she wasn’t allowed to see any of her family until last year.But, when she finally did, she seemed to recognize her brother and had unmistakable memories of their time together as children.
“She was hugging me, she was holding my hand. You might as well have thrown a parade because we were so happy because we hadn’t seen her like that in, like, forever,” her brother Guy Burrell explained after visiting April with his wife and children.
“It was like she came home. We never thought that was possible.”
“When she came in there, you would’ve thought she was a brand-new person,” he added. “She knew all of us, remembered different stuff from back when she was a child.”
Dr. Markx is hopeful that April’s story is not just a one-off.
“The notion that people are gone in these mental institutes and that they come back still… that has always stuck with me.”
Dr. Markx is eager to replicate it in as many patients as possible, giving each of them a new lease on life. He continues to look for other catatonic patients with autoimmune conditions who could be awakened.
“These are the forgotten souls, he says, “We’re not just improving the lives of these people, but we’re bringing them back from a place that I didn’t think they could come back from.”