'I Think She Was Touched by an Angel'

TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

Theresa de Vera, 21, had been in a deep coma for six weeks after a severe asthma attack that stopped her breathing. A tube inserted into her stomach fed her, a hissing ventilator breathed for her, IV lines dripped antibiotics into her bloodstream.

It was Memorial Day weekend, and Theresa's mother and brother were at her side in an intensive care ward at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. On this day, the De Veras and Theresa's doctors argued over a decision that more and more Americans are confronting: Should they pull the plug?

In this bedside debate the usual roles were reversed. The doctors, armed with piles of data such as brain-wave scans indicating that Theresa was in a vegetative state, asked the family to be "realistic" about her chances and prepare themselves for the eventual possibility of "harvesting" her organs, as Theresa's mother, Ruby, recalls it.

But Ruby held fast--and was vindicated in June by what hospital workers now simply call "the miracle."

Theresa--contrary to all medical expectations--came out of the coma. On July 4, Theresa de Vera said, the doctors pulled the tube that had pierced her throat and let her breathe largely on her own. "Her Independence Day," her mother said.

"Mir-ac-u-lous," Theresa said in an interview Friday.

Today, a ruby-lipsticked Theresa will drive her motorized wheelchair out of the hospital, heading to another facility for extended rehab.

She is going to make it, her family says the doctors have told them, and though she is likely to have impairments, her mind is sharp enough to recall an old boyfriend's phone number. Her family's persistence, based on their Christian faith, illustrates another side of the great end-of-life debate, what might be called the struggle for the right to hope.

The question of if, or when, to end a life is at the core of the nation's burgeoning right-to-die movement, as exasperated lay people, backed by health advocates and civil libertarians, fight to free loved ones imprisoned by life-prolonging measures in a void of not-alive, not-dead.

Little is known about the extent of the practice of withholding life-prolonging measures. Such decisions, usually made in private, are seldom reported to public health agencies. "It's cases like Theresa's that add to the ethical dilemma of when to pull the plug," said Melanie Menges, a social worker at the medical center.

"Everybody I know in the medical profession thought we were going to lose her," said David Nelson, Glendale Adventist's chief operating officer. "I was there when the doctors said there was no hope. . . . I think she was touched by an angel."

A political science and theology student at Loyola Marymount University, Theresa had always had asthma, and it was a severe attack the night of April 20 that plunged her into a coma for nearly three months.

She was unconscious and not breathing when she reached the Adventist E.R., where doctors quickly inserted a tube into her airway and got a ventilator breathing for her. By then, though, her brain had gone without oxygen for several minutes, profoundly threatening its ability to monitor and control body functions.

The coma had persisted for six weeks when the doctors broached the subject of organ donation, her brother, Randy, recalled. .

One doctor raised the possibility while standing within earshot of Theresa. And though she was by all accounts deeply comatose at the time--unable to feel pain or respond to stimuli--"she started to cry when she heard that," he said.

Three of Theresa's physicians would not return numerous telephone calls from The Times seeking comment on the incident.

Ruby de Vera describes her daughter's "awakening" as a gradual emergence over a few days. "She would grimace when they would perform a procedure," she said. "She would cry when they drew blood." Then came the morning when the mother walked into Theresa's room, said her name--and she turned her head in response.

"I knew she was back."

Asked if she could describe the coma, Theresa said, "It felt like a long nap." Any pain? "No." She thinks she could hear sometimes.

She speaks haltingly now, forming the words with great effort and concentration, but her ability to follow a conversation and her robust good humor astound her therapists. "Four out of five doctors surveyed said I was not going to make it," she said.

Many of her caregivers marvel at Theresa's iron stamina. "Mentally, she is on top of it," said Leslie Martin, a speech pathologist at Glendale Adventist who began working with Theresa in June.

"At first, she could not talk at all, she could not eat, she had very little oral movement, she couldn't focus on anything in the room. Now she can read large type and eat some things."

Other caregivers pointed out that a loved one was always there, Ruby or Randy or her best friend, Mara Colaizzi, a Loyola classmate.

"The family was so positive, and we were very scared it wouldn't work out for them," said physical therapist Leizl Lacar.

"My friends have been very, very, very supportive," Theresa said.

Today she moves on to Casa Colina in Pomona, a rehabilitation and assisted-living facility. "At home I would just be a wheelchair potato," she said.

"I believe faith plays a huge role in my recovery," Theresa said. Her mother explained that at each Sunday service at St. Dominic's Catholic Church in Eagle Rock, the parish invoked Theresa's name during the Prayer of the Faithful.

"Yup," Theresa said, confirming that is what she meant by faith.

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