A young British man injured in a car accident whose doctors had pronounced him brain dead and told his family not to expect his recovery surprised the world by checking out of the hospital less than two months later. The youth might indeed be dead if his parents had listened to the experts. Happily, they didn’t.
In February 2008, 21-year-old Steven Thorpe, a resident of Kenilworth in Warwickshire County, England, was traveling home from a nearby town called Leamington with his friend Matthew when the car collided with two others and a horse running loose on the A452 road. Matthew, who was driving, died, and the horse also received fatal injuries.
Thorpe was transported to University Hospital in Coventry where doctors put him in an induced coma before performing a craniotomy (the surgical removal of part of the bone from the skull to expose the brain for surgery) to reduce swelling on his brain.
After two days, the medicos gave up hope that Thorpe would regain consciousness. They wanted to remove his organs from his body for donation to transplant patients. But the patient’s parents refused to let this happen.
The doctors were proved to be all wrong. “I was out of hospital seven weeks later,” Thorpe said.
Young Thorpe has his parents to thank for saving his life. They sensed that their son was still there, alive inside his sedated state. Thorpe said later that he had some awareness that family members were there with him and this is what gave them hope he could rally:
“When they sat around the bed they had the feeling I was there and some words they said to me I reacted to.”
Thorpe said there was never a dramatic display to show everyone he was indeed alive. His symptoms were far more subtle:
“It wasn’t that they’d get a kick or a swing of the arm – there would be something that flickered.”
Thorpe’s parents shared their opinion that Steven was responding to them, indicating his brain was still functioning. A General Practitioner (GP) named Dr. Julia Piper paid attention to them. She had been referred by one of father Thorpe’s workmates and sided with the family:
“If my parents hadn’t asked for the second opinion, and if Julia hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here. She believed in them and listened.”
Despite the fact that four doctors had ruled Steven Thorpe brain dead, Dr. Piper stuck to her guns and finally got a positive diagnosis (not brain dead) from a neurologist.
Dr. Piper shared her side of the story:
“I had this strong feeling that this wasn’t right and then eventually I got someone else to look at him and of course it proved to have been the right thing to have done.”
Two weeks later, doctors roused Thorpe from his coma. Five weeks after that, Thorpe was discharged from the hospital – completely alive, of course.
When Thorpe found out that four other doctors had given up on him, he said he was “disappointed” with the British National Health Service (NHS) but had “no problem” with what had happened to him in the hospital. But he did have one piece of advice for the pessimistic experts:
“Perhaps the NHS [National Health Service] should have listened.”
Dr. Piper was also discomforted by Thorpe’s experience:
“One feels this may happen more often. We don’t have any figures but I think it’s important to always ask and if you’re not sure about something to push as hard as you can. As with all human beings, we can sometimes have procedures in place and they sometimes fail. We need to understand why they’re failing.”
Thorpe understood the gravity of his situation and good fortune to have the caring support of his family, Dr. Piper, and the neurologist:
“It’s very worrying to think that…more than one specialist has written me off pretty much and I am lucky to be here really due to having a second opinion.”
An official statement from University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust read:
“The injury to Steven’s brain was extremely critical and several CT scans of the head showed almost irreversible damage.
“It is extremely rare that a patient with having suffered such extensive trauma to the brain should survive. However, critical care and other specialist teams continued to support his systems through his critical period and we were delighted to see Steve recover and make progress against all the odds. He is truly a unique case.”
More than four years later, Thorpe continued to receive treatment related to the injuries he sustained in the car wreck, including four operations to reconstruct his face and physiotherapy to help him regain some use of his left arm.
Thorpe enrolled in an accounting course at a Coventry college and claimed his ordeal had not dampened his enthusiasm or ambitions:
“I don’t think my outlook’s changed. I’m a very driven person. I’m living to succeed in life.”
Despite the need for ongoing corrective procedures, the resilient young man remained undaunted:
“I think there’s still another operation to come. I don’t know when they’ll end but they’re not affecting me.”
This case draws attention to other comatose or otherwise unconscious patients who were declared to be brain dead or hopelessly incurable before aggressive doctors recommended organ harvesting.